Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Maybe We North Carolinians Have Become Too Smug

On a just-completed 2,400 mile road trip up from Durham, NC, where I live, to the 1000 Island Region of the Saint Lawrence River and back, it occurred to me just how spectacular the roadside views are along vast stretches of Interstates 81, 84, 85, 90 and 95 -- lush, clean and free of billboard blight.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the impression given drivers and passengers riding in nearly a million out-of-state vehicles (not counting trucks) that pass or stop each year along the 182 miles of I 95 as it slices through eastern North Carolina between the borders with Virginia and South Carolina as well as serving as the primary north-south gateway for cities such as this state’s capital Raleigh.

While North Carolinians sit snug in our self-impressions of our state’s visual beauty, travelers speeding along I 95 as it cuts diagonally between the State’s piedmont and coastal plain regions are treated to forests of 4,000 outdoor billboards, 200 through Lumberton alone.

No one is quite sure what was running through the mind of a powerful coastal state senator as he pushed through legislation that now permits the out-of-state companies owning these billboards to collectively clear-cut up to 400 miles of publicly-owned North Carolina roadside trees and vegetation along both sides of I 95, making it, save for brief stretches, one of the most blighted in the nation.

Whatever the motive, this inexplicable give-away (wiping away any requirement to reimburse the public for the $28 million value of the trees along this stretch in just pulp value alone or any obligation to reforest) has the effect of throwing the state’s vaunted sense-of-place and its $18.4 billion tourism sector under the proverbial bus.

Shared experiences as Eagle Scouts and Rotary Club presidents with backgrounds in marketing have obviously given this senator and I a much different appreciation for and interpretation of both a scout’s vow of environmental resource stewardship and the Rotarian Four-Way Test but hopefully they may also lead to mutual understanding and better outcomes in the future.

It is always important to ask, “why would an otherwise reasonable person do such a thing.”

But maybe it is just that we North Carolinians have become too smug in our self-image of this great state, assuming incorrectly that this blight must be even worse in other states; or maybe our years of attracting not only visitors but relocating or expanding businesses from other states have made us arrogant and complacent.

What else could explain why chambers of commerce such as the one where I live signed on as enablers of this sacrifice of sense of place, trumping the objections of their community, its neighborhood organizations and its destination marketing organization and sense-of-place guardian.

Or maybe we North Carolinians just find it incredulous that those we elect to steward the state’s marketability would support those who sacrifice it instead.

As North Carolinians study the future of I 95, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss tolls as a way to spread the cost for upgrades to include out-of-state vehicles and the 22% that are trucks.  Those stretches of unspoiled Interstates on my just-concluded trip, all seemed to have one thing in common.

And that’s the fact that they are nearly all toll roads.

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