Seven reasons to reject billboard blight

February 27, 2003|By Edward T. McMahon

IT'S A mystery why the Baltimore City Council would want to turn the 1st Mariner Arena into a canvas for giant outdoor advertisements.

Baltimore already has too many billboards. Putting up even more defies everything the city has been trying to achieve. Here are seven reasons why Baltimore should say no to more billboards:

A city's image is fundamentally important to its economic well-being.

People routinely decide where to live, where to invest and where to vacation based on what a city looks like. Billboards are an intrusive, downscale medium that does nothing to enhance a city's image. The more Baltimore looks like everyplace else in America - cluttered and overly commercialized - the less reason there is to visit or invest.

Billboards are both a cause and a symptom of urban blight.

They are a cause because billboards degrade the urban environment, lower property values and foster contempt for the public realm.

They are a symptom because one form of blight breeds another. Billboards, graffiti, trash, junk cars, abandoned buildings - where you find one, you'll often find the others.

Billboards are a form of pollution - visual pollution.

Regulating billboards is no different than regulating noxious fumes or sewage discharges. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said in a 1984 ruling, "Pollution is not limited to the air we breathe and the water we drink. It can equally offend the eye and the ear."

While the messages on billboards can be attractive, ugly or just ordinary, when enlarged to more than 1,000 square feet, draped over downtown buildings or randomly strewn along major streets, they become a form of visual pollution.

Billboards are the only form of advertisement you can't turn off or avoid.

There is a vast difference between seeing an ad on a billboard vs. seeing an ad, even the same one, in a magazine, newspaper or on the television. When you buy a magazine or turn on the television, you exercise freedom of choice. By contrast, you have no power to turn off or throw away a billboard. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, billboards force advertising on individuals and neighborhoods, regardless of whether they want to see it.

Billboard companies are selling something they don't own - our field of vision.

Courts have long held that billboards do not derive their value from the private land they stand on but from the public roads they stand next to. Courts call this the "parasite principle" because billboards feed like parasites off roads they pay nothing to build, use or maintain. To understand this, imagine that every billboard in Baltimore was turned around so that the message could not be seen from the road. They would suddenly be worthless.

Billboard companies exercise almost no restraint in the placement of outdoor ads.

Throughout Baltimore, billboard companies have put billboards anywhere and everywhere they could.

Billboards can be found next to homes, schools, churches, parks, playgrounds, hospitals, even next to cemeteries. Now they want to clutter up the west-side revitalization area.

Billboards are ineffective and unnecessary.

There are alternatives to billboards that provide the same information at less cost without degrading our landscape. What's more, billboards are one of the least effective forms of advertising. Denis Altman, professor of advertising at the University of Kentucky, says, "Outdoor advertising is more than an eyesore, it's a hoax. It wastes advertisers dollars and clutters the landscape."

In contrast to Baltimore, Montgomery County has long banned billboards. This has enhanced its image as a good place to live and work.

Edward T. McMahon is a member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Board of Advisers.

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