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Curing "Litter on a Stick"

Proposed new laws would strengthen billboard regulations

June 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The state Legislature and conservationists are taking on the outdoor advertising lobby in a bid to protect Michigan's scenic views, tourism economy, and community character by regulating the size, location, and number of highway billboards.

Twelve measures introduced by Sen. Leon Stille, (R-Spring Lake), call for giving counties the same authority as townships to ban billboards on scenic roads and rural areas. Senate Bills 445, 455, and 465 would:

•Prohibit, without prior permission, the clearing of trees and bushes on public lands to make billboards more visible

•Increase the distance between newbillboards

•Eliminate huge double-decker billboards

•Raise billboard permit fees from the current $5 per sign in order to finance a state fund to pay for dismantling unlawful billboards

•Expand the use of much smaller "logo signs" at highway exits

•Regulate the size and location of signs on state heritage and scenic highways

A companion measure in the package of billboard control proposals was introduced by Sen. Loren Bennett, (R-Canton), whose Senate Bill 341 calls for banning billboards for cigarettes, cigars, and all other tobacco products.

In the House, Rep. Mick Middaugh, (R-Paw Paw), has proposed House Bill 4517, which calls for an

immediate moratorium on constructing new billboards.

Taken as a whole, the bills represent the most important challenge to Michigan's outdoor advertising industry

in years. They come as highwaybillboards are proliferating throughout northern Michigan and the rest of the state, and as complaints about them grow louder in Lansing.

According to Scenic America, a highway beautification watchdog group based in Washington, DC, Michigan has 16,000 highway billboards, 750 of them erected last year. Michigan now ranks third in the number of highway billboards, after Florida and Ohio.

While a step forward, the Senate and House measures fall far short of the total billboard bans that have helped to increase tourism in Vermont, Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Outdoor advertisers in Michigan, nevertheless, are readying war chests in Lansing to prevent any changes in existing law. The billboard lobby is one of the wealthiest in Lansing, handing out tens of thousands of dollars annually in campaign contributions, according to campaign finance records maintained by the Secretary of State.

Spokesmen for the $90-million-a-year industry say billboards serve a useful public purpose by informing travelers and aiding business. Limiting billboards, says the industry, is an infringement of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and of the Fifth Amendment right of private property ownership. "Whatever one's esthetic predilections, billboards represent the exercise of private property rights and commercial speech," said the Detroit News, a billboard industry supporter. "Small businesses, in particular, rely on billboards as an affordable method of advertising, while land owners can generate income without developing rural property."

Advocates of stricter billboard controls have attracted their own influential allies. The Detroit Free Press, Grand Rapids Press, Kalamazoo Gazette, and Petoskey News Review have all backed new billboard regulations. Republican Senate Majority Leader, Dick Posthumus, appeared at an Earth Day news conference in April to endorse the proposals as a means for "protecting Michigan's unique natural beauty."

Michigan United Conservation Clubs and Scenic Michigan, a statewide affiliate of Scenic America, have launched a campaign to pass the new legislation. The Michigan Environmental Council also supports the measures. "It's good to see us finally show some pride in our beautiful state," said Lana Pollack, the Council's president, who characterized billboards as "litter on a stick."G

For more information, contact: Julie Metty, Scenic Michigan, P.O. Box 30235, Lansing, MI 48909; Tel. 517-371-1041.

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