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"I Think I Shall Never See A Billboard Lovely As A Tree…" 

12-09-2015 17:35

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall.
I`ll never see a tree at all.
- Ogden Nash

Billboards? I thought Lady Bird Johnson got rid of them.

Think again! If you believe billboards are on the decline you must be from one of the four billboard-free states-Vermont, Maine, Alaska or Hawaii. But if you are from Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi or any of the other 46 states that permit billboards, all you need to do is look around to see the damage. Tall, steel mono-poles designed to last forever tower over trees, homes, and businesses, plastering commercial messages against the sky. In 24 states billboard companies can clearcut public trees on public property for private billboard visibility; in at least 34 states, billboards are legally constructed in unzoned rural areas. And at this very moment, billboard operators are probably busy at your state capitol convincing legislators to enact takings legislation to protect billboards from removal.

You are not powerless. There is much that preservationists can do to support bill-board reform at the federal level and to ensure that state and local laws support banning the construction of new billboards and then removing old ones.

The Highway Beautification Act

As Americans` love affair with the car began, so came a huge expansion in our national road system and with it what Reader`s Digest has called America`s most persistent roadside parasite: the bill-board. The parasite gave birth to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) in 1925.

But with billboards came opposition to billboards.

By 1913, a women`s group in Hawaii, the Outdoor Circle, had become increasingly disturbed by their husbands` ugly billboards. Interested in preserving the scenic beauty of the islands, the Outdoor Circle organized a boycott of all products advertised on billboards, proceeded to buy out the last billboard company on the islands, and took down all the billboards. Hawaii has prohibited billboards ever since, and the Outdoor Circle remains active to this day, working on a host of scenic conservation issues in Hawaii.

Back on the mainland, billboard opponents were spurred to act in the 1950s by the specter of uncontrolled billboard construction along the thousands of miles of planned interstate highways. After rejecting more far-reaching efforts, in 1958 Congress enacted the Bonus Act, which gave states that banned billboard construction along rural interstates a bonus of 0.5 percent of their federal-aid highway funding allocation.

On January 1, 1959, the billboard-free territory of Alaska joined the nation as the 50th state. Alaskans, fiercely proud of the unique beauty and grandeur of their state, spurred their state legislature to reconfirm the billboard ban in its first session. The state remains billboard- free today.

President John F. Kennedy, speaking to Congress in 1961, encouraged beautification, saying that the interstate system was not intended to provide a large and unreimbursed measure of benefits to the bill-board industry, whose structures tend to distract from the beauty and safety of the routes they line.

After Kennedy`s successor, Lyndon Johnson, won reelection in 1964, Lady Bird Johnson, the President`s wife, spearheaded a vigorous campaign to enact tough federal billboard controls. However, a massive billboard industry lobbying effort chipped away at the proposal. When it passed in 1965, Lady Bird Johnson`s Highway Beautification Act (HBA) was hailed as the harbinger of a new conservation movement.

Today, the HBA is a disaster for the American landscape and a dream for the billboard lobby, which proclaims it as a law that works. Foremost among the act`s problems were lax controls on new construction that allowed new billboards just about anywhere and an onerous requirement that taxpayers pay cash to remove billboards not conforming to the law-a provision that would lead to even more mischief in 1978.

Still, the HBA`s passage did lead some states to take their own action.

Vermont had long been concerned with growing visual pollution in the state. A legislative council found that tourists provided the state`s second largest source of income and that billboards were not effective at providing tourist information. The state legislature passed a billboard prohibition in 1968, choosing to establish a series of Travel Information Centers around the state to provide needed information. In 1974 Vermont removed its last billboard. Within two years, tourism in the state had risen by a whopping 50 percent.

In 1975, Oregon enacted a statewide cap on the number of billboards, effectively freezing the number of billboards on state and federal roads in the state. Oregon remains today one of our nation`s most beautiful and least billboard-blighted states.

In 1977, Maine enacted its Traveler Information Services Act, which is patterned after Vermont`s law. It provided for the complete phase-out of off-premise billboards over a six-year period. The media and a group of state dignitaries, including Marion Fuller Brown who had shepherded the law through the Maine legislature, gathered in 1984 to witness the felling of the last two billboards in Maine.

Despite these states` successes, by 1978 only 30 percent of signs not conforming to the HBA had been removed from the nation`s roadways at a total cost to the taxpayers of $107.5 million. That same year, Congress allowed the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) to leave another mark on the HBA. Congress amended the law by requiring local governments to pay cash compensation to companies for any nonconforming bill-boards on federal aid highways and roads removed under local laws or ordinances. Shortly thereafter, federal money for the billboard removal program dried up, virtually precluding any more removal of billboards under the HBA.

As a result, it became almost impossible for local and state governments to protect their scenic heritage through the elimination of billboards. A number of billboard opponents, frustrated by the federal government`s failure to control billboards, began to organize in earnest.

Also in 1978, a number of activists formed the National Coalition to Preserve Scenic Beauty, now Scenic America, and by 1982 the organization they founded had incorporated and begun to fight back. Scenic conservationists have made real progress at the state and local level. In 1990, Rhode Island took a key pro-beauty step by stopping any new billboard construction, making it the fifth state, and the first in nearly 15 years, to take such a step.

Meanwhile, many cities and counties have taken the lead on controlling billboards. By 1998, an estimated 1,000 American communities were billboard free, prohibited new billboards, or had tough restrictions. For example, Charlottesville, Va.; Houston and Dallas, Tex.; and Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., have banned construction of new billboards. Philadelphia, Pa., and Seattle, Wash., have placed a cap on the total number of billboards allowed in the cities. And cities like Little Rock, Ark., and Washington, D.C., have placed tough restrictions on size, spacing, and location of billboards.

At the federal level, pro-beauty forces have encountered tougher sledding. The U.S. Department of Transportation has consistently shied away from the problem because the billboard lobbyists make life very tough for those that take them on. But looking the other way is inexcusable: the DOT Inspector General`s 1984 report said the HBA "has been ineffective in improving highway beautification as the number of signs located adjacent to the nation`s highways continues to increase... [It has] had little impact on enhancing the scenic and recreational value of highways."

In 1986, and again in 1991, Scenic America and other scenic advocates made strong but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reform the HBA. The reform proposals would have prohibited new billboard construction on federal roads and allowed billboards to be removed via any constitutional method.

In 1998, Senator James Jeffords (R-VT), with Representative John Lewis (D-GA), introduced the Scenic Highway Protection Act. This bill brought billboard control and scenic conservation back into the federal spotlight but Congress did not want to include this contentious issue in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).

So, what`s wrong with the Highway Beautification Act? Scenic America documented the problems in its 1997 report, The Highway Beautification Act: A Broken Law.

Thousands of new billboards are constructed annually. There are at least 425,000 to 450,000 billboards lining America`s federal-aid highways today and that number grows by about 5,000 to 15,000 billboards annually (Congressional Research Service estimate, 1991; and Scenic America estimates, 1997). The maximum allowable number of billboards under the Highway Beautification Act is 21 structures per mile on Interstate highways, 36 structures per mile on rural primary highways, 106 per mile on urban primary high-ways- more than 10 million nationwide.

Rural and scenic areas are under siege from billboard blight. HBA rules are so per-missive that one business in a rural, unzoned area may be surrounded by as many as eight, 1,200-square-foot billboards- the equivalent of two football fields! According to a 1984 U.S. Department of Transportation study, sign companies have resorted to using inactive or sham businesses as the basis for securing the necessary state permits in rural areas.

Thousands of publicly owned trees are clearcut each year to improve the visibility of billboards on private property. The HBA allows billboard operators to come onto the public highway right of way and clearcut public trees to improve the visibility of their billboards. Billboard operators clearcut publicly owned trees at least 1,000 to 2,500 times a year in 24 states. Communities are prohibited from removing billboards on federal-aid highways through the constitutional method amortization and must instead pay the billboard polluters cash compensation to remove non-conforming billboards.

Taxpayers must pay to remove billboards. The HBA is the first federal takings law in that it requires taxpayers to pay billboard polluters to remove their nonconforming billboards-those legally erected boards that no longer conform to laws and are targeted for removal - from federal highways. This overrides local control over sign regulation and creates absurd situations.

Few nonconforming billboards are removed, and virtually all conforming billboards remain from year to year. Today, 35 years after the HBA passed, more than 73,000 nonconforming billboards line America`s federal-aid high-ways. On average, less than .005 percent of the remaining nonconforming boards are removed under the HBA each year. At this rate it will take more than 730 years to remove these boards!

Because of inadequate permit fees, public subsidies to billboard operators total more than $6 million each year. Thirty-seven of 44 states in Scenic America`s 1997 study reported that the costs of their billboard control program outpaced their revenue from billboard permit fees-by a combined total of more than $6 million. Furthermore, billboard operators pay no road user taxes, tolls, or fees, and the public has paid more than $250 million to remove non-conforming billboards.

State DOTs and the federal government often pay little more than lip service to billboard control efforts. According to the U.S. DOT Inspector General (1984), AFHWA monitoring of state outdoor advertising programs has allowed the states to forego resolving known pro-gram violations and to become lax in detecting additional violations. Many states have only vague or incomplete statistics.

Reform of the Highway Beautification Act

Preservationists, environmentalists and all who care about the beauty of their communities and countryside need to press their state departments of transportation, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and the Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration to enforce rigorously the existing law. And every preservation organization should make sure that the billboard industry does not pass state legislation that hinders the ability of local governments to enact strict billboard controls.

Further, we need to insist that Congress reform the Highway Beautification Act to ensure that it meets its original purposes. The HBA should appear on every list of federal programs that are injurious to our nation`s environment and to the future of sound land use planning. Smart growth proponents in the House and the Senate need to target the HBA as a federal law that hurts, not helps, communities in making sound choices about their future.

Fighting Billboard Blight in Your Community

In spite of the shameful deficiencies of the federal law, there is much that states and local communities can do to enact strict billboard control. Taking your community back from the billboard barons won`t be easy. But with commitment, hard work, and a good plan, you can win and add to the growing list of communities with tough billboard controls.

Step One: Pass a Temporary Moratorium on Construction of New Billboards
Every community working to stop billboard blight should first pass a temporary moratorium on all new bill-board construction to make sure that the problem doesn`t get any worse. If billboard companies know that new sign regulations might be passed, they will probably secure as many permits as possible before any change in the law can take place, making the problem worse.

Step Two: Pass a Permanent Moratorium on the Construction of New Billboards
Most communities concerned with billboard blight either have too many billboards altogether or too many billboards in the wrong places. The best solution to either problem is to stop the construction of any new billboards. Your community should pass an ordinance that simply prohibits new billboard construction. The ordinance should also prevent rebuilding of billboards at existing sites and relocation of billboards to a different site. Such an ordinance ensures that your city will not endure more blight.

Step Three: Give Your Ordinance Teeth
It is important to make sure that your billboard ordinance has teeth in it. Some key provisions to give your ordinance teeth include:
  • Assess adequate annual permit fees to cover the city`s cost of controlling billboards.
  • Enforce your ordinance. Make sure that strict fines are levied for illegal billboards: a fine that, for example, doubles every day will help to reduce the number of illegal billboards, both as a preventive measure and by raising revenue for the local government to enforce bill-board control.
  • Require that the local government keep a detailed inventory of billboards to help enforcement of billboard control. The inventory should include the location, size, age, and tax status of every billboard in town.
Step Four: Remove Existing Billboards
Once you have an ordinance in place that prohibits new billboard construction, you can work on removing existing billboards. The most effective way to do this is by passing an amortization ordinance that requires the removal of all the billboards in your community (or within a particular neighborhood) by a given time, typically five to seven years. Most states allow amortization, and you should pursue this option for billboard removal if amortization is permissible in your state.

As noted above, amortization is prohibited along federal highways by the Highway Beautification Act. Thus, if you hope to remove billboards along federal highways, you must pay cash for them. There are funding sources available to you, among them federal transportation enhancements and, if the road is a scenic byway, scenic byways funds.

Another method of reducing the intrusiveness of billboards-and one that is acceptable along federal-aid highways-is to require that, after a certain number of years, all billboards in your community be no larger than a specified size, say 75 square feet. Cities like Denver and Tucson have successfully used downsizing as a way to reduce the size and intrusiveness of billboards.

A Final Word

Here are 10 reasons that preservationists should work to control billboards:
  1. Billboards are a form of pollution - visual pollution.
  2. Billboards are out of place in most locations and, thus, make one place look like any other.
  3. Billboards are unavoidable ambush advertising.
  4. Billboard companies are selling something they don`t own - our field of vision.
  5. Billboard operators completely fail to police them-selves or exercise restraint in their location of billboards or in the messages they carry.
  6. Billboards are targeted at low-income, minority neighborhoods.
  7. Billboards are the medium of choice for alcohol, strip joints, and casinos.
  8. Billboards are both a cause and a symptom of unplanned sprawl development and urban blight.
  9. Billboard operators clearcut, poison, and destroy thousands of trees on public land.
  10. Billboards are ineffective and unnecessary in an age of Internet information.
Remember this: While change is inevitable, ugliness is not! Meg Maguire is president of Scenic America and Frank Vespe serves on its Board of Directors. For additional information contact Scenic America, Suite 300, 801 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003 or visit its web site at

Publication Date: Summer 2000


Author(s):Meg Maguire & Frank Vespe