Mark Mayer: wrangling with the wild west of billboard regulation

By Makenna Sievertson, Scenic America intern

After Mark Mayer graduated from the University of Michigan in 1978 with a degree in mathematics, the Detroit native wanted to move west to sunnier climes. Enticed by the seemingly never ending beauty of the deserts and mountains, he settled in Tucson, Arizona in 1984.

Mayer first became involved with the battle against billboard blight in 1992, when Tucson’s mayor and city council were considering an industry proposal to undermine Tucson’s restrictive billboard ordinance that had been adopted in 1985 and backed by a 2-1 public vote. Alarmed by this initiative, Mayer recruited key community players from the 1985 effort, and together they were able to successfully preserve the ordinance. Mayer was no stranger to such community advocacy, as he was a veteran of the civil rights, labor and anti-Vietnam War movements in Detroit and had opposed U.S. intervention in Central America after having moved to Tucson.

During the many billboard committee meetings on the 1992 proposal, Mayer learned firsthand about the aggressive and deceptive nature of the industry. For example, a local billboard company executive was claiming that all but six of 150 illuminated mid-sized billboards complied with the dark sky lighting code. Being contrary to Mayer’s experience, in mid-1994 he took matters into his own hands and inventoried all of the 575 billboards within city limits. Using a cursory list assembled by city staff in 1991, he documented the lighting status and other physical attributes of each billboard, which confirmed what Mayer had suspected. He found that over 50 of the 150 billboards at issue had lighting violations — far more than the six claimed by the company. “This was a critical moment for me,” he said. “It was a wake-up call for the kind of industry we were dealing with.”

By late 1994, Mayer realized that lighting compliance was not the only issue. After further investigation, he determined that the city had lost track of the billboards to be removed under the 1985 ordinance due to subsequent property development. The city was awaiting the outcome of a billboard company lawsuit filed in 1986, and upon Mayer’s inquiry provided a list of only ten billboards. In contrast, his own subsequent research showed 43.

Mayer’s exhaustive list caught the attention of key city officials, and he was retained to form an in-depth inventory of all billboards in the city and to document those with code violations. Analyzing the 575 billboards may seem a daunting task, but Mayer completed his work within nine months. While most people had assumed the billboards had legal status, he quickly found that “permits often differed from reality” and that nearly half of the billboards violated the code. He then listed all of the violations and started an enforcement process that would play out over the next 15 years. “If you don’t roll up your sleeves and know what’s happening on the ground, your ordinances can be skirted,” Mayer said.

This enforcement did not come easily, however, as Mayer and other volunteers had to persistently pressure the city to follow through. Piecemeal actions resulted in the removal of some 30 billboards over the next six years, but it was not until 2005 that an exhaustive court action was filed on the 234 remaining billboards in violation. The court action ultimately resulted in a 2009 settlement negotiated by Mayer and other community volunteers (the “Billboard Review Committee”) that required the removal of 110 billboards over extended time periods and modification of 21 others. The settlement also granted standing to Mayer and two other citizen designees to enforce key provisions in court, should the city fail to do so. In Pima County, a citizen-spurred enforcement effort from 2001-2006 resulted in a similar court-entered agreement to remove 55 of the 120 billboards in that jurisdiction.

Mayer’s early work on billboard blight in Tucson caused him to look out at what was happening on the issue nationally, where he found a network of like-minded advocates in Scenic America and its state and local affiliates. In 2001, Mayer and two other veterans of the billboard fight founded Scenic Arizona.

Although Tucson had been good at defending its billboard ordinance, Mayer said the billboard industry still has outsized influence in the state as a whole. “We’re one of the most beautiful states in the country, yet we’re home to two of the three biggest visual polluters in the country,” he said, referring to the Arizona roots of the Clear Channel and Outfront billboard companies.

Despite long odds, Scenic Arizona and its predecessor have had two notable state-level successes. First was in 1999, when billboard baron Karl Eller ran a bill in the state legislature that was aimed squarely at Tucson and would have gutted all municipal authority to regulate billboards. In response, the “Scenic Arizona Coalition” was formed by a network of scenic, dark sky, neighborhood, environmental, preventionist, and municipal interests to oppose it. The common wisdom was that such opposition would be futile, but the coalition succeeded in finally defeating the bill in the waning hours of the legislative session.

On the second state-level front, Scenic Arizona filed a lawsuit against a Phoenix-area billboard company in 2008, seeking to uphold the Arizona Highway Beautification Act’s ban on electronic billboards (“intermittent lights”). After many twists and turns in this David-and-Goliath battle, the courts finally found in favor of Scenic Arizona in 2012, confirming that permits issued in Phoenix and a few other jurisdiction violated state law. The industry, not unsurprisingly, then ran to the state legislature to overturn the law. Opposition by Scenic Arizona and key allies, however, was able to limit the damage so that the prohibition remains fully in force in about 80% of the state’s territory (the greater Phoenix area being the biggest exception).

Through these collective efforts over the years, Mayer and Scenic Arizona have been able to reduce the number of billboards in the Tucson metro area from about 920 in 1985 to 300 in 2018 (counting the final 12 yet to come down under the two settlement agreements). In addition, in 2005 Tucson passed what may have been the first ordinance in the country that very specifically outlawed electronic billboards. Mayer notes that “the beauty of what we’ve accomplished here is that there are so many less billboards, the industry can’t justify having the same [lobbying] presence in southeast Arizona [as it once did],”

These accomplishments didn’t come easily. As a small, volunteer run organization, much of the time and financial obligations fall on Mayer with the support of a limited network. He said there have been periods where the work has consumed most of his time and energy. “If you commit to taking on the billboard industry, you’re in for a long fight.”

Despite the many challenges that accompany this kind of advocacy, Mayer’s voice still stubbornly surges with passion when he discusses the work of Scenic Arizona. He hopes to expand the organization to take on other beautification issues, and is eager to recruit a new generation of advocates to cement and move forward on the progress the group has made.

Mayer recommends that other advocates against billboard blight take the time to get a sense of the details. “Get a handle on what’s going on in the community, know what’s out there in terms of the physical [billboard] infrastructure,” he said. Take the pulse of different community sectors and “once you do this you’ll find no one seems to like billboards all that much.”