Oct 15 2006

The Birmingham News

Editorial

No one ever said, "This place sure looks better since all those billboards went up." And people notice when something outrageous shows up on a billboard, as many Birmingham residents did when they recently were forced to look at an off-color ad for a cable network.

What can you do about an offensive billboard? Absolutely nothing. If a local government permits billboards, it cannot control what goes on them.

You don't like a sign advertising a strip joint? Too bad. You find a radio station promotion offensive? Tough luck. If your city has billboards, the impression your town makes on visitors is at the mercy of a media corporation. You have no say in it.

Even innocuous billboards make a bad impression. Phillips High School in Birmingham is on the 2006 list of "Places in Peril" from the Alabama Historical Commission. If you're coming downtown from the east, you can't see the building; it's blocked by a billboard. Sloss Furnaces is a National Historic Landmark. When you approach it from downtown, you can't see it - because of a billboard.

We can opt out of advertising elsewhere. We can close the magazine or turn off the TV. We install spam filters on our e-mail and pop-up blockers on our Internet browsers. We put our phone numbers on a do-not-call list.

But on the road, we are subjected to an assault of unsolicited ads. Billboard companies promote their product based on the fact that you can't escape.

Scenic Alabama has been working for 10 years to help protect our communities from billboard blight. Our top local priority is a proposal to the Jefferson County Commission to not allow any new billboard construction in unincorporated areas. The current ordinance merely sets a cap on the number of billboards. This leaves the door wide open for billboards to locate on pockets of land near, or even within, a city that does not allow billboards.

Hoover has recent experience with this situation. A business would not annex into the city in order to put up a billboard, right in the middle of one of our nicest business districts.

Prohibiting new billboards would also protect highways such as Corridor X/Interstate 22 and the Northern Beltline. As those areas develop and are annexed, cities will be able to regulate billboards as they see fit. In the meantime, we need to keep billboards out. The best method is to not allow new ones.

Communities across the country are banning billboards or prohibiting new ones. The billboard industry's attempt to intimidate cities over their sign codes has backfired, as they continue to lose in state and federal courts. The industry is now trying a sneak attack on the federal Highway Beautification Act, and we're fighting back.

Billboard companies have done their best to chip away at the HBA since it was adopted 40 years ago. The only remaining provision with any teeth is one that does not allow nonconforming billboards to be rebuilt if they are destroyed by natural causes, such as hurricanes. In June, billboard companies sneaked in an amendment to an appropriations bill to allow rebuilding. Thanks to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, the amendment was pulled.

Now, billboard companies are trying again, on a different funding bill. Again, we're asking for the amendment to be removed.