Communities and states are fighting back against billboards. Despite industry efforts, many communities have managed substantial victories which provide hope and examples for those pursuing billboard reform.
William F. Buckley, a noted conservative commentator once wrote “If a homeowner desires to construct a huge Coca-Cola sign facing his own homestead rather than the public highway, in order to remind him, every time he looks out his window, that the time has come to pause and be refreshed, he certainly should be left free to do so. But if he wants to face the sign toward us, that is something else.
Policy Tools for Billboard & Sign Control
Ban On Billboards
Hundreds of communities have banned billboards completely, as have Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine. Each of these states has prospered in business and tourism, and attributes part of the success to billboard bans. According to the Vermont Travel Division, tourism is up for all businesses large and small.
Banning New Billboard Construction
In recent years, hundreds of cities like Houston, San Diego, and Little Rock have banned the construction of new billboards. This prevents the billboard problem from getting worse, protects new roads from becoming blighted, and helps billboard-free communities stay that way.
Though federal law prohibits the use of amortization on Interstate and federal-aid primary highways, Raleigh and Durham, NC, have successfully used amortization to reduce visual pollution on local roads. The billboard industry has challenged these ordinances in the North Carolina and United States Supreme Courts, but both ordinances have been upheld.
One of the largest cleanups of visual pollution undertaken by an American city will remove over 1000 billboards in Jacksonville, FL. The city and a local grassroots organization recently reached settlement agreements with 10 separate billboard companies.
Some cities use an exchange ordinance to diminish visual blight. Exchange provisions require billboard companies to remove one or more existing nonconforming billboards before they erect a new, conforming billboard in another location. While not generally desirable, a carefully targeted exchange ordinance can remove billboards from “visually sensitive” areas like historic districts, downtown cores, town gateways, and areas with scenic mountain or ocean views. Mobile, AL, successfully removed billboards from its historic district with this approach.
Amortization and Signage
The most effective way to remove signs is by passing an ordinance that requires the removal of all billboards in your community by a given time, typically five to seven years. This is a process known as amortization. Most states allow amortization, and you should pursue this option for billboard removal if it is permitted in your state.
After your community has secured a ban on new billboards it should enact legislation to promote alternatives to billboard blight such as logo signs and tourist-oriented directional signs (TODS). Logo signs and TODS display only essential traveler information and are smaller, less obtrusive, more affordable and easier to read than billboards. Logo signs advertise gas, food, camping, and lodging at nearby highway exits. TODS are used on non-interstate highways and supply information about local tourist attractions, such as distances and directions.
Informing people of the value of billboard control, especially its beneficial effect on local economies and tourism spending, is one of the best ways to build community support for fighting billboard blight. Studies have repeatedly shown that scenic areas and beautiful communities are the places where people most want to live, work, and visit. Some common types of educational outreach include speaking to community and business groups, publishing articles in your local newspaper, and holding community workshops.
Beautification projects are a good way to fight billboard blight, build civic pride, encourage investment, and attract tourism. Volunteer efforts to reclaim beauty and restore local character encourage citizens to take pride in their area by refusing to use billboards for commercial or public service advertising; urging landowners near roadways and commercial centers not to permit billboards on their property; and establishing an awards program to recognize people that have worked to rid their community of billboard blight.
Incentives can provide significant motivation for improving local appearance and encouraging people to fight billboard blight. Small grants to community groups undertaking beautification projects, low advertising rates on billboard alternatives like logo signs or tourist-oriented directional signs, and tax breaks for landowners that agree to keep their property billboard free can make a big difference in how a community looks.