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Clearing The Way Toward A More Scenic Connecticut

Commentary By TONI GOLD

February 24, 2008

I wonder if Gov. M. Jodi Rell knew what a storm she would unleash when she quietly submitted legislation to ban new billboards on state land and to allow existing billboard contracts to expire. The response from the outdoor advertising industry has been immediate, with all the usual protestations about free markets and free speech and dire warnings about negative economic effects.

If she didn't know it before, the governor has by now discovered that the outdoor advertising industry is one of the most powerful lobbies in the state. I believe she needs reinforcements.

Her best resource is a national nonprofit known as Scenic America, which The Washington Post has described as "an advocacy group that rivals roadside vegetation as billboards' biggest foe." On its website, www.scenic.org, the organization boldly states, "Nothing destroys the distinctive character of our communities and the natural beauty of our countryside more rapidly than uncontrolled signs and billboards."

Founded years ago in the wake of Lady Bird Johnson's "Keep America Beautiful" campaign, Scenic America has developed numerous tools to combat what it refers to as "visual pollution," "sky trash," "litter on a stick" and "the junk mail of American highways." The organization advocates for scenic beauty, but it also makes a strong case that billboard control is good for business.

Scenic America's resources include legal advice such as model ordinances and model legislation at both the local and the state levels, scenic easements for view protection, and research and commentary on the "takings" clause of the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits the taking of private property without compensation). Its technical and educational tools include publications, websites, information on telecommunications towers and tree conservation, and insights on how the outdoor advertising industry works.

Most inspiring for Connecticut are the case studies of other states that have already embarked on billboard control. Vermont has been entirely billboard-free for 40 years, a policy vigorously supported by the large tourism industry there, as well as by the public.

To experience the difference between a billboard-free state and one that allows outdoor advertising, just drive from Vermont into New Hampshire. The difference is amazing, and instantly noticeable. Other states, too, have enacted total prohibition. Hawaii, the first, removed all billboards in the 1920s, Maine in the 1970s and '80s, and Alaska in 1998.

And in many other local communities and states, the battle is engaged, with the first step often being a ban on billboards on public land, much as Gov. Rell has proposed.

I'm really rooting for the governor on this one, but it's hard to see how she could prevail without an organized statewide constituency to advocate with her. I don't believe Connecticut has a group dedicated exclusively to scenic beauty, but 24 states do. They are affiliates of Scenic America and range all the way from Scenic California to Scenic D.C.

Interestingly, there are none in New England, although there are many other sympathetic groups. For example, a ban on electronic signs in Concord, N.H., was recently upheld in court with help from not only Scenic America, but also the American Planning Association, the northern New England chapter of the APA, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the New Hampshire Municipal Lawyers Association and the New Hampshire Planners Association.

For those who are really serious about this issue, their amicus briefs are available on the Scenic America website.

To the governor, I say, "You go, girl!"

Toni Gold of Hartford is a private consultant and a senior associate with the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces. She is a member of the boards of 1,000 Friends of Connecticut and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and she is on The Courant's Place Board of Contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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