JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Missouri law effective in August required a greater distance between new and existing billboards and imposed several other requirements intended to stunt the bumper crop of billboards popping up along Missouri roads.
Of course, some companies rushed to finish construction on new billboards before the law took effect.
But a few who didn't might be able to construct their signs anyway, thanks to an exception to the law created by the Missouri Department of Transportation -- the agency responsible for implementing the law.
The exception was adopted at the urging of Sen. Morris Westfall -- the retiring legislator chiefly responsible for passing the law.
Westfall, a Republican from Halfway, is not typically a supporter of more restrictions on business. For example, he opposed a November 2000 Missouri ballot issue that would have prohibited the construction of new billboards on federal highways. That measure narrowly failed.
Yet as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Westfall helped broker a compromise earlier this year among the Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association and Scenic Missouri, the group that pushed the 2000 initiative.
The resulting law that took effect Aug. 28 increased the minimum space between billboards to 1,400 feet from the previous 500 feet, raised billboard fees and tightened the requirements for businesses to have on-site billboards.
In a letter dated Aug. 27 to billboard permit holders, the transportation department said it would take down any billboard erected the next day or later that did not comply with the new law.
It was a zero-tolerance policy.
But some companies with billboard permits complained to the state agency. Westfall also complained that the policy didn't follow the intent of his bill.
"An abrupt change in policy is not really fair," Westfall said while recounting his conversation with transportation officials.
So the transportation department changed its policy.
Exception expires today
In a letter dated Oct. 15, the department said permit holders who had incurred 15 percent of their total estimated costs before the law's effective date could apply to MoDOT to construct their billboards -- even if they did not conform with the new law. The transportation department limited the exception to companies that had fewer than 10 outstanding permits -- a cut off the agency determined to be an indication of hoarding.
The new policy gave potential billboard owners 60 days to apply for an exception. That deadline expires today, the department said.
As of last week, the state had issued permits for 11,980 billboards, 254 of which had not been erected. More than 80 percent of those outstanding permits likely are for billboards that would not conform with the new law, MoDOT officials said. But through Friday, just seven exceptions had been granted allowing illegal billboards to be built.