FRANKFORT — An environmental group filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to stop the state from implementing regulations that allow more electronic billboards along highways and let billboard owners cut trees on public land that block their advertisements.
Tom FitzGerald, an attorney who leads the Kentucky Resources Council, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Scenic Kentucky, which wants the state Transportation Cabinet's new billboard regulations overturned.
FitzGerald announced the lawsuit minutes after the cabinet's regulations cleared their last legislative hurdle Thursday. The lawsuit was assigned to Judge Thomas Wingate in Franklin Circuit Court.
The Interim Joint Committee on Transportation had the option of deferring or amending the regulations with the cabinet's consent or declaring them deficient. But the legislative panel took no vote on any of the options, so the regulations took effect immediately after the committee adjourned.
Transportation Secretary Mike Hancock had told the committee that the cabinet didn't want to defer the regulations, which the Transportation Cabinet had worked on for nearly three years.
When asked about the lawsuit, which claims the cabinet exceeded its authority, Hancock said, "We'll just cross that bridge when we get there."
Paul Bergmann, executive director of Scenic Kentucky, told the committee that the regulations would clutter the state with more billboards, distract drivers and lower property values.
"It's the wrong thing to do," said Mike Young, a lobbyist for Scenic Kentucky.
Young said the state should defer the regulations until a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., against electronic billboards has been settled. He also said the issue should be decided by the entire state legislature and not an agency of the executive branch.
The billboard industry contends that the proposed regulations would decrease the number of billboards in the state and that vegetation would be removed in an environmentally responsible way.
The industry had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.
It has pushed state lawmakers for at least 14 legislative sessions to write a new law that would allow billboard owners to cut vegetation on public rights of way that obstruct the view of billboards on private property, but the General Assembly has rebuffed the idea repeatedly.
During the committee's discussion of the regulations, Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, said he was not in favor of a complete ban on billboards, which is the case in Hawaii, Maine, Vermont and Alaska. But Riggs said he agreed with some of Scenic Kentucky's concerns.
He also said the cabinet should have worked with state lawmakers in coming up with the regulations.
Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, said he was particularly concerned about more blinking electronic billboards in urban areas.
Rebecca Goodman, a lawyer for the Transportation Cabinet, said a local legislative body must approve electronic billboards under the new regulations.
"We will not approve them if the local bodies are silent on the issue," she said.
Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, said another legislative panel already has advanced the regulations, and the transportation committee should follow that route.
Confusion reigned in early September after the legislature's Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee considered the regulations.
Transportation Cabinet officials and Scenic Kentucky representatives said they were surprised to learn after the meeting that the controversial billboard regulations had advanced and not stalled in the committee.
They learned that the regulations were sent to the transportation committee because the regulations panel had taken no vote to defer them.
Senate Transportation chairman Ernie Harris, R-Crestwood, strongly defended the regulations in both committees.
"Some people don't want any billboards at all, but that horse has left the gate a long time ago," he said Thursday.
He was asked after the meeting why he supported allowing an executive branch agency instead of the legislature to enact billboard regulations when he criticized Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes this year for implementing electronic voter registration and bypassing the legislature.
"I'll pass on that," he said.