In US cities, new battle over billboard 'clutter'

Bright, high-tech signs are popping up in backyards, prompting protests and bans

From her back window, Melissa Walden can see a backyard full of pear, pecan, and apple trees, an endless sea of grass, and a 100-foot billboard that blots out the Texas sky.

Like many folks in the prosperous middle-class suburb of North Dallas, Mrs. Walden says this sign, and 15 others along the yet-to-be-built President George Bush Turnpike, ruin the look and feel of her neighborhood.

"It is 100 feet from our backdoor," says Walden, who runs a computer-graphics business out of her home.

Last month, Dallas enacted a moratorium on building new billboards, and in September, the city will decide whether to make the ban permanent. If it does, it will join some 1,000 other cities and a few of states in a growing revolt against an old problem: stemming what they see as "visual clutter" along America's roads.

The ban comes as advertisers nationwide boost their billboard spending by 6 percent this year, in hopes of recapturing an audience that is abandoning network television. Moreover, it pits two values as old as America itself against each other: the right to make a home and the right to make a living.

In all, there may be anywhere from 400,000 to half a million billboards on the 125,000 miles of federal highways - and even more on state and local roads.

Unlike the smaller but numerous Burma Shave signs of yesteryear, today's billboards are enormous, and increasingly high-tech. Many have ads on both sides and are well-lit in the evening hours. Some billboards are mechanized, constantly shifting from one advertisement to the next. Local businesses use billboards the most, in part because of their low cost.

Broad backlash

But in a backlash that started in the 1960s - led by a nature-loving first lady Lady Bird Johnson - federal, state, and local governments began to rein in the growing forest of billboards. It's a movement that has drawn support not just from environmentalists, but also from conservatives such as regulation-resister William F. Buckley, Jr.

In Santa Clarita, Calif., city leaders have not only banned new billboards, they are considering buying up the remaining ones and tearing them down.

"What we're looking at is buying billboards, using the revenue from them to pay them off over seven years, and as soon as they're paid off, we take the chain saws to them," says assistant city manager Ken Pulskamp, who is in charge of Santa Clarita's billboard-acquisition project. It's an image thing, he says: "Billboards are not compatible with the image we're trying to create."

In Houston, one of the first Texas cities to enact a ban on new billboards, city leaders passed an ordinance that would bring down all billboards by 2013. Since 1980, when the first ban was passed, Houston has reduced its billboard numbers from 10,000 to around 5,500. Of course, a few hurricanes played a part.

"This has been a growing movement in Texas and across the country," says Carroll Shaddock, chairman of Scenic Texas, an anti billboard group, that calls billboards "litter on a stick." "All it seems to take these days to stop this problem in communities is to make people aware that they have a choice."

Back in Dallas, billboard owners say they are open to negotiating with the city about the signs in Walden's neighborhood. But in the meantime, they say that they should not be punished for conducting a legitimate business.

"We're not the bad guys," says George Reynolds, immediate past president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas. "We're active in our communities, we've served in politics and in charities. But we're not perceived that way, and that's what upsets me. To put constraints on an industry that does so much good is wrong."

Keeping the city's billboard numbers at the status quo also has the unintended effect of freezing out minority businessmen in an advertising industry that has long been run by whites, says Dwaine Caraway.

"With the ban, we're shut out," says Mr. Caraway, president of Profile Group, the only African-American-run billboard firm in town. As it is, corporate America does not cater to black Americans the way it should, he says. "If the city makes the ban permanent, I cannot grow and no other minority-owned firm can grow either."

Caraway and other billboard owners have some friends on the City Council, and they hope to get a fair hearing.

But homeowners in North Dallas just want the billboard people to go away. "The worst part is it's going to be lit up," says Walden, lamenting the still-blank billboard in her backyard. "We joke that our electricity bills will go down because we won't have to keep the lights on at night."

Close encounters

Russell Mills moved to a nearby neighborhood about five years ago because of its bucolic meadows and planned-community feel. Then a high-techbillboard appeared above the recently planted trees and gardens.

"It's like a spaceship," he chuckles mordantly. "It's bright, well-lit. It hovers above the ground. It sort of deters from the effect we were striving for."

"The billboard companies come in and say, 'We're your neighbors, we want to be involved in the community,' " says Mr. Mills, president of the homeowners association. "But I find it hard to believe that a neighbor would put a sign up in my backyard."

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