The Politics of Beauty Meets the Politics of Gerrymandering

A Blog Written By Scenic NC Board Member & Attorney, Ryke Longest

Gerrymandering is not a new phenomenon in American politics.  Neither is giving away public assets to prop up profits of monopolists.  Both exemplify subtle threats to the American experiment in democracy.  And both so often coincide and combine that if you look behind every great theft of American democracy and its public assets, you find these two forces at work.  The claim that financial monopolists are “too big to fail” coupled with the reality that their officers are “too rich to jail” demonstrate the failure of our legislative branch to represent the will of the American People.  Instead of representing the public’s will, our legislators and their enablers have become extremely proficient at picking their constituents very carefully.  As a result, the monopolists who fund their campaigns and bankroll the “dark money” organizations actually control legislative policy across a wide spectrum of issues.

Nearly fifty years ago, North Carolina’s leaders played a pivotal role in seeking to protect our highways from visual blight posed by billboards and junkyards.  North Carolina’s former Governor Luther Hodges and its Highways chief, William F. Babcock helped bring Lady Bird Johnson’s vision into being.  Lady Bird saw our highways as the front yards of our communities and envisioned them as gardens rather than as billboard alleys. Chief Babcock expressed this vision eloquently, stating “the highway in a rural setting, should fit the landscape like a deer in the forest rather than a bull in the china shop.”  Our current political leadership is throwing out the welcome mat to the bull by seeking to undo the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and promote permanent, digital billboards in our communities.

Jacksonville North Carolina’s local Dodge dealer is Senator Harry Brown  who introduced SB320 last month. This bill would restrict North Carolina’s ability to regulate the billboard industry and enable established billboard advertising firms to profit at the public’s expense. SB320 proposes that it is North Carolina’s job to foster billboards’ “visibility to the traveling public.” This declaration commits the State to making billboards more obtrusive and distracting, exactly the bull in the china shop which Chief Babcock opposed.

The news is even worse for taxpayers regarding the costs of road construction.  Under SB320, the costs which NC DOT will have to pay a billboard owner if they need to remove a billboard to improve a road will skyrocket.  No fiscal note has yet been produced to study these effects and the billboard industry’s supporters have fought disclosing the industry’s true costs and benefits at every turn.  Rather they point to free ad space given to nonprofits when their billboards are between tenants. The new billboard buyout formula in Section 7 mirrors the approach used by Clear Channel Communications in demanding more than $9 million from the Minnesota DOT as payment for removing billboards blocking the new bridge route from St. Paul’s Lafayette Bridge.  These demands were settled by paying $7.3 million for five billboards, with $4.3 million paying for a digital billboard.

In Section 8, SB320 authorize existing billboards to be reconstructed as digital signs with changeable messages, wooden sign poles to be converted to steel monopoles, and sign height to be increased up to 80 feet. Also, existing billboards would be freely relocated to another site within the same zoning jurisdiction adjacent to a highway.  This will allow billboard companies to move and then rebuild existing small, unobtrusive billboards to be much more obtrusive and distracting to drivers.

Conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. opined that billboards are acts of aggression against which the public is entitled to be protected as a matter of privacy.  In 1968 Buckley wrote “If a homeowner desires to construct a huge Coca-Cola sign facing his own homestead rather than the public highway, in order to remind him, every time he looks out his window, that the time has come to pause and be refreshed, he certainly should be left free to do so.  But if he wants to face the sign toward us, that is something else, and the big name libertarian theorists should go to work demolishing the billboarders’ abuse of the argument of private property.”  In like fashion, President Johnson praised the passage of the Highway Beautification Act as the triumph of public good over private greed.

Fifty years later, greed is poised to triumph over public good.  Under SB320, North Carolina would become the de jure enforcer of a government-sanctioned cartel, guaranteeing exclusive profits and payouts for existing billboard permit holders well into the 21st century.  The buyout cost to the public will go up as the billboards go digital.  We will leave a bill for our children to pay to out of state businesses such as Clear Channel and Lamar.  Fifty years after the White House Conference on Scenic Beauty, people have forgotten how bad things used to be and seem ready to take us backwards by gutting a law which was North Carolina’s best tool for protecting its collective front yard from billboard blight. Lady Bird Johnson understood that scenic beauty was a key public good.  SB 320 is a giant step backward.

Date: May 30, 2015

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