High court permits partial; Signs point to fewer highway billboards

All signs point to fewer billboards along American roads. This is how some environmentalists read the somewhat confusing July 2 US Supreme Court decisions on outdoor advertising which were not entirely in their favor.

But how fast the billboard population shrinks also may depend in large part on the fate of the federal highway beautification program, now being evaluated by a 24- member task force.

The Reagan administration has requested no additional funds for the program which, over the past 15 years, has used $141.9 million to remove signs.

At issue in the Supreme Court rulings was a state or local government's right to ban large and sometimes unattractive signs entirely or within a certain distance of streets and highways.

While steering clear of what could be construed as an endorsement of any such ban, a majority of the nine justices held that the outlawing of off-premises billboards bearing commercial messages is not a violation of the US Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

At the same time, however, the court left unclear to what, if any, extent state or local governments can regulate roadside signs with political or religious messages.

The cases before the court involved a 1973 San Diego city ordinance and a 1977 Maine state law aimed at the removal of billboards. In its separate but related decisions the court overturned the former and let stand the latter.

The justices affirmed a December federal court decision, striking down portions of a maine law providing for elimination of noncommercial billboard throughtout the Pine Tree State. The ruling narrow the state law.

That 5-to-3 Supreme Court decision appears to pave the way for resumption of commercial billboard removal which was halted last fall pending outcome of the litigation.

Some 600 off-premises advertising signs have been removed from along Maine roads -- local streets as well as state and interstate highways -- since 1978 ad about another 600 are similarly targeted, according to Alden Small, the state trasportation commissioner.

Less certain is the fate of antibillboard efforts in San Diego, although sentiment there appears to favor passage of a new ordinance -- one which would withstand future court challengers.

"We are studying the Supreme Court decision to determined what they of restrictions might be allowed," explains Alan Sumption, the deputy city attorney who argued the case before the justices last February.

He anticipates a new ordinance will be in place by July 27 when the order striking down the present one becomes effective.

Some 1,400 commercial billboards throughout the 320-square-mile city are at stake. Any new measure will almost surely permit no-premises commercial signs to continue.

While hardly disappointed with the San diego decision, leaders of the outdoor advertising industry are less than pleased that, in the Maine case, six of the justices failed to apply First Amendment protections to commercial messages.

Although only four states thus far -- Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont -- have billboard statutes on their books, nearly 3,300 municipalities in other states have such restrictions. And in the wake of the recent high court decisions, other local governments can be expected to push in a similar direction.

This is a major concern to billboard interests across the nation whose businesses could be adversely affected.

A new Maine statute enacted earlier this year exempts billboards with noncommercial messages from the roadside sign clearance law.

Maine has set its sights on $660,000 of the federal funds for compensation to billboard owners whose signs along federal highways will be removed. Under present regulations, 75 percent of such costs are reimbursed to the state.

But antibillboard activists are apprehensive that without continued financing from Washington highway beautification projects will be greatly curtailed, if not halted.

The federal highway beautification program still has $32 million to spend on removing highway signs, although these funds are largely already committed.

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