A World Beyond: Building Billboards Outside The Norm

When Lyndon Johnson enacted the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, he had to choose the limits of the area covered under the law. Since he assumed that billboards would need to be near the road, he selected all the land within roughly 660’ of the highway right-of-way as the “controlled area”. However, this was based on the typical sign sizes of that era. He underestimated the creativity of the billboard industry, and the U.S. has regretted it ever since.

The potential loophole

Every state has a limitation on the “controlled area” of their laws regarding billboards. Some still use the original 660’ setback, and others may have amended that to a different distance. But the important point is that virtually all states have a limit on their “controlled” territory. And that means that there typically exists a point in which you can build any sign you want if you just go outside that boundary. You see, the concept of sign regulation and control is not infinite, and you can step over that boundary and have no regulations in many states. That’s the way the law worked from the beginning. But make sure you know your state’s exact rules as every state is different. You’ll know you’re on to something when you apply for a permit and the state says “we don’t have jurisdiction that far off the right-of-way”.

How it can be that far back and still be seen

So if there exists a point in most states in which the regulation of sign ceases – and we know that the initial limit was 660’ (roughly two football fields in length) – then it begs the question “how big does a sign have to be to be seen from that distance”? Let’s think about it scientifically. The average billboard is roughly about 50’ from the edge of the road of a highway. So a sign that’s over 600’ away would need to be ten times bigger to maintain that same visual size. We all know that’s impossible. However, tests have shown that you can start to hit readership targets at roughly two to three times that of a standard sign. So these sign structures are typically about 30’ tall and 80’ wide. That’s still gigantic.

The hurdles

The first problem, of course, is simply cost. Building a 30’ x 80’ billboard is not cheap. Even then, they are almost always strictly of wooden telephone pole construction to keep costs down. But double the size also means double the operating cost in vinyl printing and installation, as well as lights (if you illuminate it). The other big issue is survivability in wind and weather events. Those giant signs are much more at risk of storm damage due to their large surface area. That’s why they are typically extremely low to the ground to reduce the wind loan on the poles.

The opportunity

If you can get outside of the sign laws, you can then build signs in areas where there is huge demand and zero supply of signs. One well-known series of such signs is near the entrance and exit of major U.S. airports, where signs are typically outlawed but advertisers still want to reach this traffic with everything from Hertz Rental Car to nearby hotel information. So if you wanted to look into this opportunity what you’d be strategizing is where is the greatest source of advertiser demand crossed with complete moratoriums on billboard signs. It’s not that hard to find such areas when you start with a blank slate.

A creative example

I know someone who owns a very successful billboard that is located beyond the control of the city and state government, and to make it gigantic yet affordable they placed the ad vinyl on a grain elevator, paying the owner a monthly land rent. It’s a win/win in which the outside of the grain elevator became income producing for the owner while advertisers are now able to reach motorists at an in-demand spot along the road. And it’s the fact that it falls beyond the “controlled zone” in that state is what made that opportunity possible – something that nobody driving by ever realizes.


Billboards are a game of strategy; a giant chess match where you need to know all the potential options to make good decisions. Building signs outside the “controlled area” of your state is an option you may not have known about. But now you do.

Frank Rolfe started his billboard company off of his coffee table, immediately after graduating from college. Although he had no formal training on the industry, he learned as he went, and developed his own unique systems to accomplish things, such as renting advertising space. Frank was formerly the largest private owner of billboards in Dallas/Ft. Worth, as well as a major player in the Los Angeles market.