Billboards and Oregon Byways

billboard she is a thingBillboards and Oregon byways
by Max Ashburn
guest opinion
Friday May 15, 2009, 10:04 AM

The Oregonian editorial board appropriately calls attention to a deceptive and weak-kneed bill currently making its way through the Legislature (“A weak makeover of Oregon billboard laws,” May 9). Senate Bill 689 appears on the surface to be pro-beauty, by creating a program in the Department of Transportation that would “encourage voluntary removal of outdoor advertising signs from particularly scenic areas of scenic byways.”

In reality, the bill does little to encourage removal of signs along scenic roads and would in fact increase the total number of billboards in the state, by granting a sign owner two permits for removing a single billboard in one of the so-called “scenic areas” of a scenic byway.

The bill states that the DOT will establish the standards for what constitutes a “scenic area.” One has to wonder whether the makeup of that standards committee will be similar to that of the sign task force behind Senate Bill 689, a task force largely made up of members with interests in the outdoor advertising industry.

For decades Oregon was renowned for having some of the toughest billboard laws in the country, laws that helped preserve relatively unobstructed views of the state’s breathtaking natural beauty from its roadways. All that changed in 2006 when the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the state’s statute that placed restrictions on billboards in commercial or industrial areas violated free-speech protections. The statute, originally enacted to comply with the Highway Beautification Act, effectively capped the number of billboards in the state at just under 2,000.

After 35 years without a single new billboard, the state has seen over 200 new signs go up since the 2006 ruling. Senate Bill 689 also fails to address, perhaps intentionally (given the makeup of the sign task force), the emerging trend of billboard companies toward erecting digital or LED signs. These new signs are essentially televisions-on-a-stick, and are a growing safety concern along the nation’s roadways.

The Federal Highway Administration is currently conducting a massive study on the safety of these new signs, and the results are due late next year. The citizens of Oregon are deserving of strong legislation that protects their treasured landscapes and the safety of the motoring public. Senate Bill 689 accomplishes just the opposite.

Max Ashburn is online communication manager for Scenic America in Washington, D.C.

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My LTE: To the Editor:

Thanks to Max Ashburn for his article about the threat to our landscape via more billboards in “Billboards and Oregon byways”.  I too have noticed the sprouting of more view-blocking billboards along Oregon highways and it saddens me.  Oregon is so beautiful – I often imagine I’m passing through the Irish countryside.  But instead of recognizing our treasure and doing everything we can to protect it we seem to have a habit of despoiling it and blocking the view with billboards.  When I see a billboard it generally makes me less likely to buy a product from whoever is represented there because I become angry that a company would spend money to advertise in such a manner.  Billboards are advertising where the viewer has no choice in the matter.  In a TV ad a person can change the channel or turn off their TV.  With a billboard, the viewer is forced to view the ad which I think is an infringement on my rights.

One of the largest cities in the world, Sao Paolo, Brasil, has taken the step to outlaw all billboards in that city of 17 million people.  I can imagine that it has improved morale and certainly made architectural beauty more visible along with other social benefits.  Would that we had the foresight and political willpower to outlaw billboards in Oregon.  Something is wrong when corporations like Clear Channel have more of a right to pollute the viewpoints than people have to stop them from doing so.

I agree with Mr. Ashburn that Senate Bill 689 should be reworked to strengthen our protections against billboards and encourage my fellow citizens to contact their State Senators immediately on this issue.

Sincerely, Albert Kaufman

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