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Virginia allows billboard booze ads

Friday - 2/18/2011, 5:00am  ET

alcohol billboard (Courtesy of Daily Billboard)
Virginia could see ads like this one in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Daily Billboard)

Hank Silverberg,

RICHMOND, Va. --Virginia's skyline is about to change. Ads for alcohol will now be allowed on billboards.

The state banned such outdoor advertising of liquor, beer and wine for decades, but Lamar Advertising Co., a billboard company filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

After a look at existing Supreme Court decisions, Virginia Attorney GeneraL Ken Cuccinelli decided the law was unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. He decided to settle the case to prevent costly litigation.

That means you could see ads for all types of booze along state roadways soon.

Alcoholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Becky Gettings says there will still be some restrictions.

"They may not include images of people, consuming, underage models or cartoon characters."

Outdoor booze ads also are banned within 500 feet of churches, schools or playgrounds, and they cannot depict happy hour pricing specials.

Gettings says the ABC board will now have to rework the regulations so that they fit with constitutional restrictions, but she says outdoor booze ads are now legal in Virginia.

Meanwhile, a Virginia House committee is trying to undo the court-approved agreement between the state and Lamar Advertising Co.

The unhappy House General Laws committee took the measure up Thursday afternoon.

Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax County, criticized the agreement and new regulations that he said could leave beer and whiskey ads everywhere from roadside billboards to the exterior of neighborhood convenience stores.

"I think your restrictions are lame," Albo, an attorney and member of a subcommittee that amended an unrelated Senate bill Thursday. The bill would take the regulations out of the agency's hands and write tighter ones into state law.

The amendment, which would limit where liquor billboards can appear, is similar to a city ordinance in Baltimore, committee members said.

With adjournment scheduled for Feb. 26, prospects of the amended bill's passage are uncertain.

The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote early next week, but if the Senate doesn't concur with the amendment, it puts the bill into a conference committee where a handful of legislators will have to try to privately work out differences in the bill.

Del. Glenn Oder, R-Newport News, and other members of the panel said they were dismayed that they received no notice on the lawsuit or its resolution, even as McDonnell promoted his doomed proposal to put Virginia's state-owned liquor stores into the hands of private retailers. Lamar sued in September and Cuccinelli's office settled the suit in late December.

"This is an enormous policy change, and the ramifications for this are going to be significant," Oder said.

Oder said he promoted Gov. Bob McDonnell's liquor privatization plan and allayed constituents' concerns that liquor stores and advertising would proliferate as a result.

"Now I get to go and tell my citizens, no, we aren't going to privatize this year, but you're still going to get all of the negative impacts ... that you were afraid of," he said.

The changed character of the roadside becomes clear quickly when driving into a neighboring state, particularly Maryland, where there have been looser liquor advertising restrictions for years.

"Well, I don't want my state to become Maryland or New Jersey," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow Hank and WTOP on Twitter.

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