Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Battle over Rebuilding Rural Billboards ; Storm-Downed Signs Reignite a Debate over How Many Advertisements to Allow - and How Big They Can Be

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Battle over Rebuilding Rural Billboards ; Storm-Downed Signs Reignite a Debate over How Many Advertisements to Allow - and How Big They Can Be

Article excerpt

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. …

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