A Personal View: Garden State Takes Scenic Beauty Seriously

By Morgan Amiaga, Scenic America intern

From my personal pursuit of an undergraduate degree in Maryland and a law degree in Washington, D.C., I can attest to many common misconceptions about my home state of New Jersey. Some think of New Jersey as an industrial wasteland — overpopulated, polluted, and overbuilt. Or, those born after 1990 fail to picture anything beyond what the TV show ‘Jersey Shore’ depicts.

However, as one born and raised in New Jersey, I can verify with personal experience that the state does not deserve these characterizations. After getting my license, I had the pleasure of driving a predominantly billboard-free highway to my job, my grandparents’ house, or anywhere else. Amongst the occasional traffic, my frequently traveled North Jersey routes provided serenity via luscious greenery and scenic mountainous landscapes, rather than invoking further frustration from billboards bombarding me with unwanted and unneeded commercial advertising.

But don’t take my word for it, there is a long history of citizens and municipalities in the state taking proactive measures to protect scenic beauty and community character.

The New Jersey Shore at Avalon

The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently gave explicit guidance of permissible billboard bans while still honoring the United States Constitution’s First Amendment. In E&J Equities, LLC v. Bd. of Adjustment of the Tp. Of Franklin, a New Jersey township enacted an ordinance banning digital billboards on Interstate Route 287, but that would permit static billboards. Here, Judge Cuff quoted City of Ladue v. Gilleo, stating that “[r]egulations on billboards are justified because signs take up space and may obstruct views, distract motorists, displace alternative uses for land, and pose other problems that legitimately call for regulation.” In addition, Judge Cuff recognized the public purpose served through the elimination of visual clutter subject to satisfying the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

When determining if the regulation oversteps the boundaries of commercial speech (which has less protection than personal speech), New Jersey courts employ the “Central Hudson Standard,” which sets forth four standards to consider. Foremost, the court considers whether the communicated information regards lawful activity and that it is not misleading. If the message satisfies both, the court examines “whether the regulation directly advances the substantial government interest asserted, and whether it is not more extensive than is necessary to serve that interest.”

With challenges regarding billboard restrictions, New Jersey courts also utilize the “Clark/Ward Standard” to examine the constitutionality of laws restricting the time, place, or manner of expressed information. Laws of this nature do not violate the First Amendment if they do not prohibit a specific content of speech, directly advance the purpose asserted by the governing body, and leave open sufficient alternative methods of communication. Although the township in this case unfortunately failed to meet the second qualification of this test, this opinion provided specific insight to jurisdictions within New Jersey looking to enact or uphold laws limiting billboards.

Since this 2016 case, proposed legislation reiterates that New Jersey seeks to disincentivize billboards. The Local Billboard Tax Act introduced on June 21, 2018 by Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, would require the retail seller of billboard space to turnover up to a six percent tax on the gross amount of revenue collected in “first class cities” quarterly. N.J.S.A. 40A:6-4 quantifies this as a city with a population of 150,000 or more, which as of now encompasses Newark City and Jersey City.

 

The Palisades hover over the Hudson River

Beyond courtrooms and proposed legislation, Scenic America has also worked hard to keep New Jersey scenic and recognize those working in favor of scenic conservation. For example, Scenic America played an active role in lowering the building height of LG Electronics’ headquarters, which would have exceeded the Palisades’ beautiful scenic treeline by nearly 70 feet. In 2013, Scenic America presented its Stafford Award to Mayor Linda Bobo and the citizens of Mount Laurel to honor their efforts in keeping billboards out of their township for many years. Bobo and these upstanding citizens fought hard to protect their billboard ban through exhaustive litigation against a sign company seeking to erect four billboards alongside I-295.

The efforts of those in the legal field, communities, and activist groups, all contribute to keep New Jersey scenic, and it shows. While many may base their perceptions of New Jersey on what they see or hear in the media, those who live in the state or have taken the time to properly experience what it offers can vouch for its plentiful scenic beauty and its varied and unique local character.

Cites:

E&J Equities, LLC v. Bd. of Adjustment of the Tp. Of Franklin, 226 N.J. 549 (2016).

E&J Equities, LLC v. Bd. of Adjustment of the Tp. Of Franklin, 226 N.J. 549, 567 (2016) quoting City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 48 (1994).

N.J. Stat. § 40A:6-4 (LexisNexis, Lexis Advance through New Jersey 218th Second Annual Session, L. 2019, c. 152 (except c. 143), and J.R. 15).