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Signs of the Times

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Not all of Missouri's roadsides are cluttered with billboards, but enough are to bring the question of a statewide billboard ban to the voters in the upcoming ballot. Do billboards deface Missouri's beauty? Do they assist travelers seeking goods and services? Must we be exposed by advertising while driving public rights-of-way? You be the judge on Nov. 7.

Billboards will be on the ballot Nov. 7. Missourians will be asked to decide whether the "information" billboards provide to tourists and travelers is of sufficient value to justify obscuring or marring the beautiful scenery that people drive around Missouri to see.

If you haven’t heard about Prop. A yet, you will soon. The outdoor advertising industry has said it will spend up to $5 million to fight the initiative. Save Our Scenery 2000 (SOS) hopes to raise $2.6 million to convince voters to approve the measure.

Proposition A is on the ballot because SOS, a nonprofit group, gathered enough signatures to bypass the legislative process. If a simple majority of those who vote in the general election vote yes on Prop. A, it will become law immediately.

Proponents and opponents agree that Prop. A would:

  • Prohibit construction of new billboards on primary highways. (This includes most numbered routes, such as Interstate 70 and U.S. Highways 21, 63 and 54, plus connector routes to railroads, airports and other transportation systems.)
  • Affirm the right of cities and counties to regulate billboards.
  • Prohibit replacement, rebuilding or relocation of existing billboards along primary highways.
  • Prohibit sign companies from cutting trees on highway rights-of-way to make their signs more visible.

The two sides disagree about many other things. The most significant dispute is whether Prop. A would require the removal at state expense of approximately 3,415 of the 13,500 billboards currently located along primary highways.

The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Association (MOAA) says mandatory sign removal is likely if the proposition passes. MOAA Executive Director Bill May says that even though the proposition does not specifically call for sign removal, a legal challenge to sign companies’ right to keep existing billboards could force the court to rely on Prop. A’s overall intent. This intent, as stated in the initiative, is "state-wide reduction of outdoor advertising and elimination of outdoor advertising from areas of natural scenic beauty and in or near residential, historic, and similar districts at the earliest feasible moment."

If the state ordered removal of billboards, it would be legally obligated to compensate the owners. As the regulating agency, the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) would foot the bill. Highway Department officials and their legal experts say they are confident that passage of Prop. A would not force removal of billboards.

Former Missouri Supreme Court justice Edward D. Robertson, Jr., acting as an unpaid, independent expert, also concluded that the initiative would not require billboard removal.

The question of whether billboards are good or bad for the state’s economy is contentious, too. The MOAA says that most billboards advertise small businesses, and the majority are for travel- and tourism-related businesses. Billboards, they say, are the most effective way for these advertisers to reach their customers. They say small businesses will suffer if billboards disappear.

SOS counters by saying that removing visual clutter from Missouri highways will boost the state’s $5.8 billion-a-year travel and tourism industry.

Besides, said SOS Campaign Director Karl Kruse, billboard companies don’t generate tourist spending, they merely profit by giving their advertisers the upper hand in the quest for tourists’ cash. And, since the biggest of Missouri’s 50 or so outdoor advertising companies are based in other states, their profits are siphoned away from Missouri’s economy.

Missouri isn’t the first state to consider reducing or eliminating outdoor advertising. Vermont banned all billboards on primary highways in the 1960s. Legal challenges claiming that the law violated free-speech rights failed. Many businesses, seeing the ban as the wave of the future, removed their signs well ahead of the five-year deadline.

Christopher Barbieri, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said the absence of billboards makes it harder for travelers to find businesses off the main highway, and that directional signs maintained by the state have not worked well. The change, he added, hurt some off-highway businesses and forced them to become more creative in their marketing.

"The overall effect has been positive by helping Vermont build a reputation as a place with unspoiled natural beauty," says Barbieri. "Visitors tell us it’s like driving through a national park. The Vermont Chamber of Commerce would work as hard to preserve our sign law as we would on any other pro-business issue."

MoDOT says Missouri’s approximately 13,500 billboards are spread over 4,403 miles of primary highway, giving us an average of three billboards per primary highway mile. By comparison, Kansas has two billboards per mile, Arkansas has .9 signs per mile, Oklahoma has .75 per mile and Nebraska has .4 per mile. Figures were not available for Iowa or Illinois, Missouri’s most commercially developed neighbor.

SOS says that Missouri’s billboard law is one of the weakest in the nation and denies local governments the authority necessary to effectively regulate billboards, a claim that MOAA disputes. May says Prop. A would prevent local governments from passing billboard regulations less stringent than state rules, reducing the freedom of cities and counties that welcome outdoor advertising.

May says MOAA has supported reasonable regulations of outdoor advertising. However, Kruse says outdoor advertisers have supported billboard laws only when they thought that doing so would prevent stricter regulation. He says billboard companies frequently sue local governments over the very regulations they once supported, forcing cities and counties to spend taxpayer dollars to defend the right to enforce their regulations.

All these arguments and counter-arguments, like billboards, make it easy to lose sight of the goal of Prop. A, preserving and enhancing Missouri’s scenic beauty. This goal won the support of the Conservation Federation of Missouri, which represents 72 affiliate groups and nearly 30,000 individuals, including birdwatchers, hunters, campers and trail riders.

Asked why the federation supports Prop. A, Executive Director Denny Ballard said, "Missouri has enough billboards to allow businesses to advertise their goods and services. They are becoming a blight on the landscape. Saying ‘enough is enough’ isn’t an extremist position."

How you vote on Prop. A depends on how much weight you assign to different values. If you find billboards ugly - litter on a stick, as SOS calls them - you’ll probably vote "yes." You’ll probably also vote for Prop. A if you believe, as Vermonters do, that the economic benefits from more beautiful highways will outweigh the advantages of outdoor advertising. If you find billboards more useful than distracting, you may vote "no."

Ask yourself what’s most important to you and what’s likely to serve Missouri best in the long run, and then cast your vote accordingly.

For more information about Proposition A, contact:

Save Our Scenery

5650A S. Sinclair Road

Columbia, MO 65203

(573) 446-3120

www.scenicmissouri.org

or

Missouri Outdoor Advertising Assn.

112 E. High Street, Second Floor

Jefferson City, MO 65101

(573) 761-5195

www.readthefineprint.org

SUPPORTERS & OPPONENTS

People and groups who publicly favor Prop. A

  • Conservation Federation of Missouri
  • Missouri Municipal League
  • Silver Dollar City, Inc. Branson
  • The Lodge of Four Seasons, Inc.
  • Lake of the Ozarks Tan-Tar-A Estates, Inc.
  • Lake of the Ozarks Hallmark Cards, Inc.
  • Kansas City Missouri League of Women Voters
  • Missouri Chapter of the American Institute of Architects
  • Missouri Chapter of the American Planning Association
  • Missouri Parks Association
  • Missouri Parks and Recreation Association
  • Missouri Association for Social Welfare
  • St. Louis Clergy Coalition
  • 16 garden clubs from around the state
  • 9 Missouri banks
  • 3 chambers of commerce
  • Sierra Club, Ozark Chapter
  • Missouri Audubon Council
  • Former Missouri Republican Party Chairman Woody Cozad
  • Former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Gene Bushmann
  • Former US Senator John C. Danforth
  • Former US Rep. Alan Wheat

Groups against Prop. A

  • Missouri Association of Outdoor Advertisers
  • Outdoor Advertising Association of America
  • St. Louis Association of Realtors
  • St. Louis Labor Council
  • St. Louis Building and Construction Trades
  • Wyne and Merritt, P.C.
  • Missouri Automobile Dealers Association
  • Missouri Caves Association
  • National Federation of Independent Businesses
  • NATSO - America's Travel Plazas and Truck Stops
  • Kansas City Station Corp.
  • Major Brands, Inc.
  • Mid-America Hearing Center
  • Two chambers of commerce
  • Software To Go

How Other States Deal with Billboards

  • Twenty-five states already have full or partial bans on billboards. Vermont, Hawaii and Maine have removed all billboards from highway rights-of-way by law. Alaska’s constitution prohibits billboards.
  • Rhode Island prohibited new billboards in 1990. Oregon placed a cap on billboard numbers on state and federal roads in 1975.
  • States that prohibit new billboards in unzoned areas along interstate highways include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The average billboard on Missouri’s primary highways is 14 feet tall by 48 feet wide. The state’s nearly 13,500 regulated billboards have a total area of about 9 million square feet. That’s equal to one billboard a mile wide and three-tenths of a mile tall.

Missouri allows billboards along interstate and primary highways only on commercial or industrial zoned land or on unzoned land if there is commercial or industrial activity within 600 feet. Billboards are not allowed in areas without local zoning codes. This accounts for the relative dearth of billboards along roads in rural areas where there is no county planning.

State law requires billboards along rural interstate highways to be:

  • No more than 800 square feet.
  • No more than 30 feet tall or 60 feet wide, excluding support structures.
  • At least 500 feet apart
  • No more than two signs stacked vertically

Billboards also display public service announcements. Are billboards the best or only way to deliver such messages?

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