excerpted from – In Florida, Billboards Trump Trees : NPR
Highway 192 used to be exceptionally plain. It was lined by weed-filled ditches, with no sidewalks and poor lighting. It was drab.
So the property owners voted to tax themselves $29 million to make the roadway safer and prettier.
“Look at it today,” says Lizasuain. “We have 10-foot sidewalks on both sides of the road. We have bicycle paths, well-lit bus shelters, information-filled kiosks. And that’s not even mentioning the beautiful landscaping that we have out here.”
Trees Vs. Billboards
The landscaping included 360 palms, 300 oleanders and 1,400 loquats, among other trees. But as the county made these improvements several years ago, some people were not happy.
“We alerted [the county] that … we’ve got a problem,” recalls Craig Swygert. He heads the Orlando division of Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns billboards along Highway 192.
“The billboards were there first, and the trees started popping up, and they were done so in a way that they would block the view of the billboard,” he says. He argued that by planting the trees where it did, the government was acting unfairly. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you a permit to be in business, but then we’re going to take it away after you’ve already invested all this money.’”
Clear Channel and other billboard companies complained that beautification projects on a number of Florida roads threatened their business, so they lobbied the state Legislature for protection.
Who Controls The View?
The public outcry wasn’t just about trees. It was about a larger issue: Who gets to control the view? Why should a private industry dictate what the public sees on a public highway?
“The issue of billboard companies seeking to cut down public trees is something that’s happening all over the country,” says Bill Jonson, who serves on the board of the advocacy group Scenic America.
Jonson calls this industry lobbying effort inappropriate — “because they’re public trees” — but it has been effective. Several states now have laws that give billboards precedence over beautification projects, and those laws often leave local communities powerless to save their trees.
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