A battle over rebuilding rural billboards

Storm-downed signs reignite a debate over how many advertisements to allow – and how big they can be.

When strong hurricanes come on shore, valued trees, cars, and sometimes homes get blown away. But not too many people lament the loss of downed billboards. Especially the ones not built to current government code.

So when a proposal to allow the rebuilding of these nonconforming billboards in storm-ravaged states was attached to a Senate emergency-aid bill earlier this month, it revived the debate over just how ubiquitous roadside signs should be.

Some see them as providing needed information to drivers, while others see them as eyesores dotting America's scenic landscape.

But with a growing number of billboards nationwide – the number is currently climbing over 500,000 – the issue goes beyond just those blown over by hurricanes.

"We think the larger problem is that we have not stopped new billboard construction," says Margaret Lloyd, policy director at Scenic Texas, a statewide visual preservation organization.

"Pretty soon, we are not going to have a single beautiful, rural area left."

Rural America is emerging as the next battleground over billboards – especially in those counties near large urban areas. As more city dwellers move farther out, the billboards follow.

The number of large advertisements that line America's roadways were supposed to drop after the signing of the Highway Beautification Act in 1965. The act aimed to encourage landscaping along federal highways and sought to clean up two components of visual "pollution": billboards and junkyards. To this day, states not complying with the act's provisions could lose up to 10 percent of their federal highway funds.

Many say the act has been a failure, in part, because states must pay signmakers to remove nonconforming signs – billboards that exceed size and spacing requirements. As a result, most illegal signs have stayed put.

The one exemption is if these illegal billboards are destroyed by natural causes. Current law only allows for compensating the rebuilding of legal, conforming signs after storms.

But earlier this month, Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah attached an amendment to a federal appropriations bill that would have allowed the reconstruction of nonconforming billboards in 13 states affected by recent hurricanes.

He said the idea was to help more than just affected citizens, but struggling businesses as well. The amendment, which was stripped out of the final bill, would have allowed those 13 states to determine how to handle nonconforming billboards – instead of having federal law determine their outcome, says Ken Klein, executive vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America in Washington.

"The recent major hurricanes in the Gulf area have underscored the need to clarify states' flexibility," he says. "We feel that clarification of states' rights is a worthy goal and good public policy." It's unclear how many nonconforming billboards were damaged in recent hurricanes, but Scenic Texas estimates the state's numbers to be around 20 to 30.

But that is just a drop in the bucket, says Ms. Lloyd. Texas has a particularly high number of billboards compared with other states because no local unit of government has been granted the authority to prohibit billboard construction in rural areas.

"Thirty-six thousand billboards [in Texas] is enough to provide advertisers with enough face space for the rest of their natural lives," says Lloyd. "We don't advocate taking those down, but we do advocate 'enough's enough.' "

Billboard advocates like Mr. Klein say the signs are important to rural communities that rely on them for economic development. They direct motorists to food and fuel, among other things.

In addition, farmers and ranchers can earn extra income by leasing their land to sign companies – which is part of the reason why rural America is seeing a rapid increase in new billboards, says Lloyd. Scenic Texas and other groups are working at the legislative level to protect certain stretches of roadway.

But some communities have taken matters into their own hands. At least 1,500 communities – including large cities such as Baltimore, Denver, Houston, and San Diego – have banned the construction of new billboards, while states such as Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont prohibit them altogether.

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