DEPENDING on one's point of view, roadside billboards are either (a) helpful providers of information and a legitimate business involving well-established property rights, or (b) visual pollution that needs to be more strictly regulated in the public interest. These, at least, are the polar arguments in a hotly contested congressional fight, with subplots developing in local governments and courts around the country.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently included as part of its five-year transportation bill a moratorium on new billboard construction along federally funded highways.
The bill also bars cutting or poisoning trees on public land to improve billboard visibility and gives state and local governments more power, allowing them to remove offending billboards by amortization rather than by compensating billboard owners.
The bill may come before the Senate this week. The House is expected to take up a similar bill.
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 resulted in hundreds of thousands of billboards coming down, and trees being planted in their place.
But at the urging of the billboard industry, Congress in 1978 amended the law to penalize states using amortization rather than full compensation by withholding a portion of their federal highway funds. (With amortization, billboards ordered down may stand for a period, usually five years, until owners recoup their investments.)
Because states couldn't afford to pay full compensation (and Congress in 1983 stopped appropriating money to remove billboards), the number of roadside signs has been going back up.
The total is now about 450,000 along Interstate and other federal-aid highways, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nearly 100,000 of those are "nonconforming," which means they no longer are in line with local zoning or other regulations. But only several hundred signs are being removed each year, while thousands of new ones are going up. Opponents note that many of the new ones are twice as big as has been typical and stand on poles three times as high.
The proposed bill is being promoted by a coalition of conservation, municipal, and other groups called "Scenic America."
The US Conference of Mayors is one group. "Mayors feel they need more tools than they have now to deal with visual pollution," says conference lobbyist Judith Burrell. "Because budgets are tight and no federal money has been appropriated, they need amortization as an option."
But that's unconstitutional, argues the billboard industry.
"Billboards are a legitimate business, and if you're going to take it, you have to compensate the owner," says Kippy Burns of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.
Outdoor advertisers have joined with the US Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel-Motel Association, the American Farm Bureau, and more than a dozen other groups to form the American Property Rights Alliance.
Industry officials point to a number of recent cases in which state courts have rejected amortization as an appropriate substitute for full compensation. State supreme courts in Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania ruled against amortization last year, says Ms. Burns. But a General Accounting Office review of related cases concluded that " a vast majority ... hold that billboard amortization is a reasonable exercise of the police power of the state and not violative of the Constitution." The US Supreme C o
urt has never dealt directly with the subject.
The billboard lobby is one of the strongest on Capitol Hill, directing thousands of dollars to key senators and representatives. Of the nearly half-million dollars it spent in the 1988 election, $72,000 went to Sen. Quentin Burdick (D) of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. While his committee voted 12 to 4 in favor of the new proposal restricting billboards, Mr. Burdick was in the minority.
The Bush administration wants to ban new billboards along federal highways in rural areas, and it favors amortization.
"The funny thing is," says Ms. Burns, "many departments within the Bush administration use billboards to promote their programs."