Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 61

Dealing with Obstructions

Billboards are all about visibility. And the enemies of visibility are “obstructions”. In this Billboard Mastery Podcast we’re going to review what to do if your billboard has an obstruction and the techniques required to get that obstacle potentially removed or reduced.

Episode 61: Dealing with Obstructions Transcript

Webster's dictionary defines an obstruction as anything that impedes or prevents. In the world of billboards, that could include preventing you from being able to rent your sign. This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're going to be talking about all about obstructions, how they occur, and what what do you do about 'em. So when you have a billboard on a road, you always have this slight risk of someone who blocks visibility of your sign. It can come about unintentionally, maybe the highway department decides to plant a tree and one day it grows into an obstruction. Or it can be intentionally, you may have a neighboring property owner that doesn't like your billboard message or just doesn't like you and tries to put something in front of the sign. But normally, most of your obstructions that you find in the world of billboards are things that can be worked on and sometimes worked so well that it's removed as an obstruction.

So the way that normally works is when you have an obstruction, the question is, how do I get around that? And in many cases, that means building your sign high enough that it is above all obstructions. Let's say you have a bunch of power lines, a bunch of trees, or some other property signs, but the permit allows you to go up, let's say, to 50 feet in height. And all those obstructions ended at about 30 feet. So sometimes to get around obstructions, what you do is you just go ahead and build your sign taller than they are. So that's a good way to do it. Now, you can sometimes have a sign that's too high in search of getting over those obstructions. And some parts of America where they do not have height limitation, you'll see signs that are often up to a 100 feet in the air, and they do that because you have obstructions which are 70 feet in the air, and at some point the sign gets so high you can hardly see it outta your windshield because you almost have to crane your neck straight up to see the sign when you get it within a range you can read it.

So it's possible in your search to get rid of obstructions, you can build a sign that you can't even rent. But normally for most billboard owners, they're gonna go ahead and put that sign at a reasonable height to get some above most of the obstructions. But what about if you can't? What if your permit doesn't allow you to build the sign tall enough to get above? Or what if you're buying a sign that already has an obstruction? Then what do you do? What do you do on those obstructions that you just can't get around? What's the plan? 

Well, the first thing you wanna say is, "All right, so this obstruction, how could I cure it? What could I do to improve it?" Let's say you have a neighboring property that's got a tree on it and the tree is blocking your sign, but you say, "Well, you know what, if I was gonna go ahead and chop that limb off that tree, then I would no longer have that obstruction. The tree could still be there. I just need to, you know, trim that tree back a bit." Now, you would never do that illegally, if you do that, You're crazy. If you go out and chop someone's branch off their tree, you're actually committing in many states, a felony. So you aren't gonna wanna do that.

But you'll go to the neighbor with the tree and say, "Hey neighbor, do you mind if I trim that tree?" And about half the time they'll say, "I don't care. You can trim the tree. I don't care. I don't even see that part of the property." And these are often commercial properties and no one really cares that much about the aesthetics anyway. So sometimes you can fix the obstruction by just asking nicely. I remember once I bought a billboard down by the Trinity River, and there must have been just acre after acre of trees that blocked the sign. But it was a great location with over 100,000 cars a day heading into Dallas. So the sign was abandoned because people had given up hope with it. I went to the owner of the sign and said, "Could I buy your sign?" He's like, "Why do you want it? I abandoned it because there's some bad obstructions with trees." I said, "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I can rent it during the winter when all the leaves fall off."

The guy thought I was a complete idiot, sold me the sign for a penny on the dollar. But what I did was I went to the folks that owned all that land, which turned out to be the Trinity River Authority, and said, "Hey, do you mind if I trim your trees?" And they said, "Oh my gosh, that'd be fantastic. Those trees aren't even supposed to be there. They're actually causing a problem. We have down to go ahead and cut 'em down ourselves." All that time, that sign company had let that sign sit vacant 'cause they'd never ask if they could remove the trees. And lo and behold, I now knew the secret answer, which was, sure I could remove as many as I want. All I did was find a tree company. We arrived at a price, he chopped 'em all down. That sign looked fantastic. It's still there today. No obstructions whatsoever.

So all it takes sometimes is just being nice. And you can get obstructions cured. Once I went to a guy, I bought a sign next to a parking lot, There's a big old sign in front of the sign, which is why the sign was abandoned. It said, "Park here," with an arrow. And I went to the guy and said, "Hey, is there a way I can lower your sign down?" He said, "Yeah, I hate the way the sign looks. It looks stupid. It's right in the middle of that billboard. So yeah, you wanna lower it down by all means, lower it down." It's all it took. Just asking in a nice way. "Hey, I'm trying to make a dollar just like you are and I see an opportunity here and I'm just wondering if you'd be nice enough to let me fix that obstruction."

And if you go to them and you tell them what it is and you're nice about it, then often that's all it takes and you can get it down. But what if they still don't wanna do it? Do you go to them and say, "Hey, can I trim your tree? "Nah, I don't want you to trim my tree." "Can you lower that parking sign?" "Nah, I don't wanna lower the parking sign." Well then what do you do? Well then you see if you can pay them to do it. Because many people have a price. There's obstructions that they don't want to do amiably. Well, they'll do if you pay 'em for it. In many occasions, I've got in the neighbor and said, "Hey, can I trim the tree?" And they said, "Oh, you know, only if you, if you were to pay me." "Okay, well I'll pay you $1000 to trim the tree." "Oh yeah, go ahead, do anything you want." Case closed."

On a more important side, maybe you have to actually enter into a vegetation control contract where you pay them a monthly amount to trim everything back so it doesn't block the sign. Done that before too. Let's assume someone's got a premise sign. The premise sign blocks you. Well, it blocks them too in the other direction, but they refuse to lower it because it's expensive to lower it. Well, you say, "I'll tell you what, I'll pay to lower it. And then once I lower it, then we're in great shape, right?" "Yeah, absolutely." So you pay a couple thousand dollars to lower the sign, they're happy, you're happy. Again, case closed. So many of the obstructions you can fix for free by just being nice and asking. Others you can fix by paying them money to get it solved.

Now, let's talk about when you've obstructions on the highways right away itself. Now you can't go to the neighboring property owner and say, "Hey, neighboring property owner, I have this problem. I want you to help me solve it." Now it's the whole state of whatever it is and the highway administration of that state. How do you solve that? Well, in some states, if you read through the ordinance, you have the right of vegetation control. There's a site triangle. And in many states, people are not aware of this, that you actually have the right to trim vegetation. Now, before you even think about doing that, go to the state and find out what the rules are. But some allow for that. So therefore it's not a big deal if you were in a state that actually allows for that, as long as you do it exactly as to what the ordinance states.

Other times you can actually go to the people who trim the highway right away. They do miles and miles and miles and hundreds of miles of the right of way and strike a deal with them. Tell them what the issue is that that vegetation is causing you problems. And often they'll go ahead and fix it 'cause they really just don't even care. However, once again, never do anything without asking permission. You would never want to go out on the highway right away and chop down a tree, because I guarantee you they will come after you. So that is never in the cards. But once again, if you ask nicely, then you might be able to get it accomplished. A lot of times people give up on these things. They assume things are unfixable. They see a billboard that's vacant because of the obstruction, they think, "Oh, nope, you can't fix it. Because if you could fix it, surely that person would've done it." But you'd be shocked how many times they do not.

There was once a sign in Dallas, along the North Dallas tollway, one of the most valuable parts of billboards in Dallas Fort Worth. And the sign was abandoned because there was a whole grove of trees there in front of the sign. And everyone always assumed there was no way you could cure that because if you could, they would, because the signs were rented for 5,000 bucks a month, you would never let that sign sit empty unless you had no choice to fix it. One day, one guy went to the owner of the sign and said, "Hey, I wanna buy the sign." And the guy said, "Ah, you don't want the sign. It's just hopeless. It's worthless. You can't fix it." But they did it anyway. And they went to the guy that had the trees and said, "Hey, I wanna trim 'em." "Nope." "I wanna pay you." "Nope." "Well, what if I made you a partner in the sign?" "Well, now that's getting interesting." That sign was gonna gross $5,000 a month. And so he just said, ! I'll tell you what, I'll deal you into the money. If it rents for 5,000 bucks a month, I'll give you 20% of the revenue every month just for solving the easement issue."

So after the lot rent on the thing, he was at a grand a month on lot rent and a grand a month on visibility, but he still had $3,000 a month positive. There are cases in America where the signs are so valuable, you might be able to actually deal the neighboring property owner in or whoever has the obstruction as the partner. And it still works. It's gonna be a lot more expensive than a few hundred dollars or a thousand dollars to trim something back. But look at the economics, it might still go forward. The bottom line is there's many, many, many obstructions, thousands of them out on America's roads that can be removed or reduced if you simply give it the effort. And sometimes when you give it the effort and you solve that, it can make for really valuable sign opportunities.

This is Frank Rolfe with the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.