Trees vs. Billboards: Round 2

Article excerpt

It was November of 1990, and Marcia Bansley was alarmed. Bansley is executive director of Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit citizen's group that plants and conserves trees. She was upset because she had become aware at a public hearing that thousands of roadside trees gracing Georgia's highways were threatened with potential destruction at the hands of Georgia's billboard industry.

The board of directors of the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) was about to approve an audacious new rule that would allow publicly owned trees to be sacrificed to make billboards visible to passing motorists. (The trees grow on the public right-of-way, whereas the billboards are privately owned and erected on private property.)

This DOT rule would have flown in the face of policy established nearly 10 years before by DOT's former commissioner-a policy declaring that trees growing in front of roadside billboards could not be thinned, trimmed, cut, or pruned.

The state's old rule applied to billboards erected along the federal interstate system and other primary routes supported by federal funds. These are referred to in billboard parlance as conforming billboards" because they conform to the federal transportation code. The old rule also applied to "nonconforming billboards," which are those that were standing when Georgia adopted its Outdoor Advertising Law in 1971. Although lawfully erected, they no longer comply with state law or state regulations due to subsequent changes in those laws or rules.

The proposed law that had Marcia Bansley so alarmed would not only have reversed the state DOT's previous regs; it would also e run contrary to May 1990 guidelines set up by the Federal Highway Administration. These guidelines oppose cutting publicly owned roadside trees to improve visibility of privately owned billboards. (See AMERICAN FORESTS, September/October 1990.)

During much of 1990, the billboard industry's statewide lobby group, the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia (OAAG), had quietly lobbied the DOT's 10-member board of directors. OAAG's efforts were successful, and in August of 1990 the board directed the DOT staff to prepare rules and regulations providing for tree trimming and removal of trees on publicly owned rights-of-way. The rule DOT came up with allowed for removal of trees with trunks up to two inches in diameter in front of conforming billboards. (Nonconforming ones were not mentioned.)

The required hearing on the proposed new rule was held in mid-November of last year. The well-organized billboard industry swamped the hearing room with membership and friends. Saying they supported vegetation control," but not the proposed two-inch rule as drafted by DOT staff, the industry representatives made a presentation of their own ideas for a more sweeping rule that would, in effect, allow clearcutting in front of all billboards-conforming and nonconforming (about 8,000 in all)-for a distance of 500 feet (approximately the length of two football fields) and including plants and trees up to a four inch trunk diameter. If necessary, trees with even larger trunks could be removed with special permission. They proposed to replant three small trees in other locations for every large tree cut. "That's like equating a company CEO to three 19-year-olds," one unimpressed environmentalist later remarked. Because little advance notice of the hearing was given, tree advocates were not well represented, except for Marcia Bansley and a few others. Seeing no heavy opposition to OAAG's scheme, three DOT members formed a vegetation-control subcommittee, subsequently producing the propose rules the billboard industry desired. A new hearing was set for March 7.

Bansley loves a challenge, and with the strong backing of Trees Atlanta's board of directors, she spearheaded a campaign to change the transportation board's mind. She joined forces with Spencer Lee, an intelligent, articulate lawyer and environmental activist from Albany, Georgia, who serves on the national board of Scenic America. …