Astronomers Win Partial Battle

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

Arizona’s astronomers that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago have apparently won at least part of their battle to keep their skies dark.

The electronic billboard industry was pushing a bill that would make 70 existing digital billboards along Arizona’s highways legal in the wake of a state Court of Appeals ruling, while Arizona’s observatories and astronomy industry wanted a statewide standard to ensure ‘dark skies’ protection for areas within a 75-mile radius of observatories.

The state governor’s veto this week of a bill that would have permitted electronic billboards on state and federal highways was a victory for the astronomers and their supporters, but they still have a long way to reach their goal of no more electronic billboards.

The battle continues to be fought in state courts and in Phoenix, where the billboard opponents – made up of the astronomers, scenic-conservation and environmental proponents, and other grass-roots and dark-sky organizations – have come together.

According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, an appeal remains possible of an Arizona Court of Appeals decision banning electronic billboards. The bill vetoed Wednesday was designed to override the Appeals Court decision, the governor apparently having been impressed by the astronomers’ arguments.

The governor’s veto, if unchallenged, would require billboard companies to remove electronic billboards along freeways. But the chance of an appeal remains active.

In another court case, CBS Outdoor, operator of numerous billboards in the city, filed suit, arguing that zoning decisions under state law may not be challenged by an initiative or referendum. However, an attorney for opponents Save Phoenix Views, argues that the state law applies to specific rezoning cases, not to general changes in the law. Save Phoenix Views proposes a ban all new billboards in Phoenix, and would prohibit conversion of existing boards to digital.

The Arizona Republic says that Save Phoenix Views lost in a separate effort to overturn the city’s updated ordinance, which opened up miles of new freeway while restricting sites for new signs on surface streets. Companies were placing numerous new boards in locations prohibited through laws using zoning variance requests that had gone unchallenged for years. And the billboard industry began moving into commercial zones near residential areas by converting old billboards.

The approval for an electronic billboard on Loop 101 in northeast Phoenix, a stretch of road that previously had no advertising signs, generated outrage among citizens.

Organizers are trying to get the city to reconsider the law. Their plan is for the city to ban all electronic billboards and conversions, except downtown in the Legends Entertainment District (a sports district) and in a proposed development on Loop 101 in west Phoenix.

The revisions go before Phoenix Planning Commission in May.

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