Which Are More Important, Billboards or Trees?

MUDDLED MESSAGE: A billboard obscured by trees in Atlanta. (Photo: Rob Holland/Flickr).

Last week, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a bill that would give billboard owners the right to chop down any state-owned trees that block motorists' views of their roadside signs, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The bill, which passed 98 votes to 68, now goes to the state Senate for the next round of voting.

State Rep. Jon Burns (R-Newington) who sponsored the bill, told the newspaper, "These signs direct people to restaurants and small businesses, affecting we believe 10,000 businesses and some 300,000 jobs directly or indirectly."

The state billboard industry — which includes billboard owners, builders and painters — lobbied heavily for the measure, the Journal-Constitution reported. The bill also allows the state to raise its billboard application and renewal fees to cover the government's costs for the program.

But not everyone agrees. In a statement, Bill Jonson of the advocacy group Scenic America said, "The issue of billboard companies seeking to cut down public trees is something that's happening all over the country. And that's inappropriate as far as I'm concerned. Because they're public trees."

A similar law passed in Florida in 2006, granting billboard owners the right to have 350 to 500 feet of unobstructed view around their signs. According to a report last summer from the Sun Sentinel, billboard owner Clear Channel Communications now "aggressively invokes" the law whenever anyone plants trees near their billboards. The Florida law requires the state to do the tree removal. If the trees are not removed, companies can sue to be compensated for lost profits.

But billboard owners aren't always winning their fight against trees. In California, six years of litigation between the city of Los Angeles and Regency Outdoor Advertising ended with the city winning the right to plant trees during beautification projects. Regency had argued that the trees reduced the value of their signs, but the court ruled "Property owners cannot demand compensation for a decrease in the property's market value when the government has not physically taken or damaged the property" and that the state had the "well-established prerogative to plant trees on ones own property."