Cutting trees for billboards

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Start your chain saws. The recent lifting of a statewide injunction has opened the door for advertisers to clear trees on state-owned land that blocks their billboard messages. Environmental groups say that’s a mistake that will add to the commercial roadside littering of Georgia. A billboard lobbyist says it will help businesses create jobs, and the advertising industry will fund future beautification projects.

Commenting is open.

Billboards a blight

By Mary Lovings

Roadside trees have intrinsic, ecological, monetary and visual value that shouldn’t be wasted or controlled as a favor for one industry. Roadside trees convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, sequestering carbon from vehicle emissions. Their roots hold soil and inhibit runoff of noxious chemicals into Georgia waterways. They provide visual and sound buffers as well as habitat. They offer relief from blaring, distracting, sometimes distasteful visual noise.

Cutting and sending beneficial trees to landfills is unnecessary destruction of natural resources. Some states, such as Maine and Hawaii, no longer allow billboards, setting an admirable legal precedent for other states.

Tourist-oriented destination signs or TODS are allowed. Tourism is an important and successful part of those states. Georgia — with a diverse geography including mountains, rolling hills, coastal plains, 14 river watersheds, and coastlines along the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico — has invaluable scenic and historic wealth for visitors and residents.

The Garden Club of Georgia, with more than 11,000 members and a beautification/conservation/education mission, has encouraged planting of roadside trees since 1929. State-provided logo signage near highway interchanges provides adequate information for travelers seeking gas, food and lodging.

Businesses do not have to rent billboards to attract customers. Other forms of advertising are available. Print media, radio and television, smartphones, Siri for iPhones, Google, Internet sites, GPS systems and other electronic devices and systems can expertly locate and provide maps and directions for travelers’ needs. They do not require cutting trees.

Scenic Georgia’s website says, “The tourist destinations in our country that enjoy the most success are those that pay attention to the tourist attractions, but also pay attention to the experience that the traveler has on the way to the tourist attraction. Some states that have the best tourist component to their economy have banned billboards entirely.”

Polling of Georgia voters by American Viewpoint in February 2009, with results provided to General Assembly members, found that trimming trees on public rights of way was opposed by 59 percent of those surveyed and supported by 39 percent. Moreover, 72 percent of voters opposed cutting down rights-of-way trees. Only 24 percent supported cutting them down.

Fortunately, as citizens educate themselves about conservation and other ecological matters — including the wise use of natural resources — and voice their wishes and needs to officials they elect, laws and judicial decisions can be revisited, reviewed, changed, repealed, overturned and reversed for everyone’s benefit.

By changes in law, raw sewage is not dumped into waterways; children are required to have schooling; meat is inspected; professionals are licensed; voting at 18 is legal; speed limits vary by location, and the public benefits.

Law evolves and laws change. The emperor’s new clothes could again be discovered to be nonexistent.

Mary Lovings is a longtime volunteer and board member for conservation organizations, including the Garden Club of Georgia and Scenic Georgia.

Signs help economy

By Conner Poe

For years, Georgia had a nonsensical policy regarding roadside vegetation. Some trees could be removed, while others couldn’t. Anti-billboard activists fought hard to keep this policy in place knowing the trees would keep growing, further obstructing billboards, with the intention of crippling the industry. As a result, thousands of signs became fully obstructed or difficult to see. Sign owners had to make a decision to either erect signs above the trees or have a stranded investment.

Ironically, the activists’ fight to overgrow the signs made roadways less scenic and hurt those promoting local businesses.

After more than 30 years of struggling to create a viable alternative to the flawed policy, industry leaders worked with stakeholders to pass a common-sense measure in 2011 that was respectful to environmental concerns and to those looking to advertise community attractions to travelers.

Under the new law, provisions have been adopted to lower skyscraper billboards and strengthen obscenity standards. Old signs can now be removed by the industry through an exchange program, saving the state and taxpayers the costs of removal.

Most important, the 2011 law will produce millions of dollars for beautification projects funded by the industry. Essentially, outdoor advertisers will fund the planting of new trees for the right to remove obstructing vegetation. We fully expect more trees will be planted through the use of beautification grants than removed through vegetation management permits.

Contrary to what anti-billboard activists claim, permitted community plantings are protected by this law. The law is clear in that all existing permitted community plantings cannot be touched. New plantings are allowed and encouraged, provided they’re not designed to obstruct billboards.

A wide variety of decorative trees and other vegetation used in beautification projects do not grow to a height that would obstruct billboards, so this is a non-issue. The billboard industry looks forward to working with local groups to ensure that existing and new state-permitted plantings are protected.

Let’s not forget these signs stimulate economic activity by promoting business, destinations and attractions — which mean jobs for Georgians. Businesses advertise on billboards because they drive consumers to their stores. Obstructed signs are ineffective in serving their purpose.

Anti-billboard activists complain this industry is unsightly; this law improves roadside aesthetics.

Activists claim they are fighting for trees; this law protects permitted plantings and should result in more trees planted than removed.

Anti-billboard activists claim billboards make travelers eager to leave the state. Our advertisers will tell them billboards result in travelers staying longer and investing in local economies.

This law addresses all legitimate issues raised by stakeholders — including environmentalists, private landowners, community leaders and advertisers — while placing rhetoric in the rearview mirror.

Conner A. Poe is executive director of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia.

21 comments Add your comment


September 28th, 2013
3:53 pm

Only 20 people have commented on this out of the millions of people in Georgia. Must be a non-issue to the average citizen.Seems to me you either hate billboards to the point where you write comments like “billboard owners are dumb” or you just don’t care.There are certainly too many billboards on certain stretches of highway in our state, but if they didn’t work why would businesses buy them?