Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Roadside Bonus

It was during the last week of May 1965 and I had just finished my junior year of high school when the Beatles’ Ticket to Ride was giving way as the #1 song to Help Me Rhonda by the Beach Boys.

American combat deaths in Vietnam reached 1500 and ten times that many students had just marched against the war in Washington D.C.  Within two weeks I would first hear Keith Richard’s famous guitar riff on I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones.

My more-like-a-brother uncle was training to fly USAF F-4 Fighter Jets.  Within a year he would be flying his first of three tours including more than 300 missions over North Vietnam.  In just more than a year a boyhood friend and a high school friend would both be seeing combat there with the US Army.

But that last week of May 1965 was also when President Lyndon Johnson convened the White House Conference on Natural Beauty.  There LBJ challenged “panels of conservationists, industrialists, government officials and private citizens” to come up with proposals for the preservation of the scenic character of America and its states, cities and towns including:

    • “underground installation of utility transmission lines”
    • “a tree-planting program”
    • “policies of taxation which would not penalize or discourage conservation and preservation of beauty”
    • “a solution to the problems of automobile junkyards”

However, this group of businesses, residents, lawmakers and policy wonks focused even more on what they felt was the greatest threat to scenic character, huge outdoor billboards, not only in cities and towns but across the landscape of the nation.

Unfortunately, proposals from the conference were effectively gutted or circumvented in subsequent legislation and today the agenda remains unfinished.

The effort to restrict outdoor billboards to highly “commercialized areas,” while preserving “scenic areas,” had begun forty-two years earlier when it became clear “poster” companies as they were then known were moving from cities in an effort to wallpaper every inch of roadway as the age of the automobile began.

At the time, Durham, North Carolina, where I have lived for nearly 25 years had a total of only 2,309 registered motor vehicles for a population of 50,000 and the registrations statewide had already skyrocketed far higher than overall population in the less than ten years since registrations began.

Roadside audits, such as one conducted in 1930 for North Carolina, began to document the state of roadsides across the nation.  On my fourth birthday in 1952, Elizabeth B. Lawton, the architect of that roadside movement died.

However, six years later, at the launch of the Interstate Highway System in 1958 the federal government offered a bonus to states that would voluntarily adopt national standards to protect their roadsides from outdoor billboards and other forms of blight.

The 23 states participating were known as “Bonus” states and they are easily discernable today by that status alone as one travels cross-country as I have done via various routes a handful of times since my retirement from community-destination marketing several years ago.

“Bonus” states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. That’s very close to half of the states in the USA.

Ironically, eligibility to participate in the program expired several days after the White House Conference on Natural Beauty adjourned in 1965 although for the most part participating states must still meet the requirements of the agreement. 

Hawaii, Vermont, Alaska and Maine have constitutionally banned billboards altogether but it is interesting to note that while every state in the Northeast participated in the “bonus” program, none in the Southwest did and only five of twelve from the Midwest did, plus four of eleven from the west and a mere three of twelve in the Southeast.

In fact by some measures by regional breakdowns used today, none did in the Southeast, one of the nation’s most scenic regions.

Scenic states such as North Carolina had everything to gain and nothing to lose because this attribute is so closely linked to their economies.  Many of the most scenically spectacular states in the union stayed on the sidelines, I suspect not because they didn’t understand what would be lost or gained but because powerful outdoor billboard interests co-opted their public will.

As a results, some of our most scenic states are hidden behind billboard blighted roadways.

Government was late to recognized the importance of controlling outdoor billboards, possibly because their hands were tied by special interests.  According to research revealed in Motoring: The Highway Experience in America by John Jakle and Keith Sculle:

  • Parkways began in 1908
  • Scenic highways were declared as early at 1915
  • Roadside tree planting efforts began in 1921

In 1919, Oregon legislated to “protect standing timber and allow planting of new trees along state highways.”  The legislation also established roadside rest areas and severely curtailed outdoor advertising along the roadways.

The efforts in Oregon may have inspired Standard Oil of California, later renamed Chevron, where my great-uncle became an executive, in the 1920s to voluntarily destroy 1200 huge outdoor billboards that the company owned in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Arizona.  That finished, the company mounted a wave of anti-billboard campaigns.

The western spin-off of Standard Oil understood what so many businesses fail to grasp even today: there is far more to gain from preserving the scenic roadway integrity valued in surveys by 8 out of every 10 people than there is to pandering to the less than 8% who use billboards during a given year.

The company realized that its private property and need for marketing did not trump the public’s rights along the roadways for which it had paid in tax revenue.  This is something lost on out-of-state billboard interests in North Carolina today as they ram through rules giving their so-called “right-to-be-viewed” precedence over public safety, air and water pollution control and every other public interest along its roadways.

Only when the public rises up and translates its well-documented opinions into action through the elective process will they recoup the roadway rights for which so many have fought so hard over the last hundred years.

No comments: