Billboards: Off the Road, Bad Signs 'Proliferate


May 09, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINTON — Washington.


Around the curve


Lovely car

Wasn't it

Roadside doggerel, sponsored by Burma Shave, was part of the fun of automobile travel long ago, when the world was young and the reforming spirit occasionally took a day off.

Nowadays, as America approaches perfection, the fine-tuners of life have returned their attention to the republic's remaining billboards. Here comes another of Washington's morality plays -- playettes, really -- pitting ''activists'' against an industry, the former fighting for beauty, the latter for profit.

But the billboard industry has two things to be said for it. It is defending an important right, and it is not as insufferably noble as its adversaries.

Bills now pending in the Congress would amend the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, which provides compensation for owners required to dismantle billboards. In 1965 there were 1.1 million signs along the federal Interstate and Primary Highway systems. Since then more than 700,000 have come down.

But dismantlings slowed drastically in the 1980s when federal appropriations for compensation became scarce. And in 1978, the outdoor advertising industry got the 1965 act amended to require state and local compensation for signs banned by changes in local zoning ordinances.

The new attack on billboards, tailored to this era of fiscal austerity, has one objectionable feature. It would allow state and local governments to ban billboards without paying compensation. Instead, they could merely allow a grace period of amortization for owners to recoup in rentals a sum equal to construction costs.

Billboards are often referred to as ''visual pollution'' and ''sensory litter.'' A Boston Globe editorial calls the billboard an ''unsightly nuisance.'' Why a sign telling travelers that there is a cheap motel a mile ahead is a ''nuisance'' to anyone is unclear. Perhaps people who feel that way do not operate or stay at the kind of low-cost motels that get most of their business from millions of nonaffluent travelers who get their information about inexpensive accommodations from roadside signs. But, still, are these signs a ''nuisance''?

Let us stipulate that all of us sensitive people would rather see trees than signs. Now, if we are quite done preening about our exquisite taste and delicate sensibilities, can we spare a moment for thoughts about justice and the Constitution? At issue are the Fifth Amendment provisions of the Bill of Rights that say people shall not be deprived of property without due process and just compensation.

The billboard industry says the substitution of amortization for compensation is slow-motion confiscation, and the industry has a point. Imagine ''amortizing'' private homes for highway purposes, without compensation.

No one disputes the legitimacy of using government power to regulate signs. But the Constitution is not trivial, even when it inconveniences something as nobly named as Scenic America, the lead organization in the anti-billboard coalition of environmental groups.

It is disingenuous to dress up the proposed legislation in Jeffersonian language about ''restoring local control.'' States already have the power to regulate, even ban billboards, with just compensation. The question is, shall constitutional values be disregarded because Americans would prefer not to pay the price -- compensation -- of an improvement they desire?

In this era of $400-billion deficits, Americans are adept at making others (the voiceless and voteless generations to come) pay a significant portion of the price of today's choices. Taking the property of billboard owners, and diminishing the value of the property of people who rent land for billboards, and doing this without proper compensation, fits today's political morality: Enjoy the benefit, make others pay.

Critics say billboards are ''parasites'' and ''free riders,'' benefiting from highways but not contributing to their construction and maintenance. If so, that problem could be addressed by taxing them more heavily. On the other hand, people who live near high-density highways suffer inconveniences for which rental income from signs on their land can be partial compensation.

Americans seem increasingly irritable, throwing elbows as they jostle for social space. Privacy -- the right to be let alone -- is under increasing pressure. On campuses speech is increasingly regulated in the name of a new entitlement -- the right of hypersensitive people to pass through life without being annoyed by the thoughts of others. And now comes an intensified attempt to abridge some people's property rights in order to spare other people, often passersby, something they consider a ''nuisance'' because it is ''unsightly.''

Some of those who are eager to get visual ''litter'' and ''pollution'' out of sight are unwilling to pay a fair price for property taken or devalued. They can fairly be suspected of relishing the prospect of wielding power over others. Call this ''coercion pollution.'' It is a growing problem in the social environment.

*George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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