Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Can't see the billboards for the trees

Have you heard any complaints from Wisconsin motorists lately that there's too much scenic beauty getting in the way of their enjoyment of roadside billboards?

I didn't think so.

It's one of those issues with a miniscule constituency -- the billboard builders --that has somehow found its way onto the fast track in the legislature. Could it have anything to do with lobbyists or campaign contributions? I'd like to blame the Repubs, but there are sponsors from both parties.

It sounds almost too ludicruous to say it, but an Assembly committee will hold a hearing Thursday on a bill to let the billboard industry cut down more trees for a better view of roadside billboards.

Assembly Bill 967 would allow clearing trees and shrubs for a distance of up to 600 feet along the highway for each billboard. Current distance in the Department of Transportation rules is 350 feet.

It also would let the billboard folks, rather than the DOT, do the trimming themselves. Left to their own devices, you can bet we'll see some tree-free zones.

This bill is scheduled in a public hearing before the Assembly Transportation Committee at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9, in room 417 North of the Capitol.

Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin, as you might expect from a group with that name, opposes the bill. Among its comments:

This bill ... provides benefits for owners and operators of billboards, but it neglects the interests of the general public.

We must manage our trees and shrubs in the public “right of way” along roads carefully. Billboards detract from scenic beauty, while trees and shrubs provide an attractive setting for our roads, a setting that people enjoy and that is attractive to tourists and good for business.

Trees and shrubs in the strip of public land beside our roads are a great benefit, providing not only scenic beauty, but erosion control, light screens, noise barriers and snow containment. Trees and shrubs should not be cut down for the purpose of providing a better view of billboards without regard to these benefits. Our roads are constructed for the purpose of transportation and are not meant to be advertising corridors.

The bill subordinates the rights of owners of adjacent property. Viewing zones will often extend along neighboring property. Neighbors often want trees and shrubs between them and the road.

The DOT follows a Natural Roadsides policy, a policy which allows new trees and shrubs to grow naturally from seeds of nearby trees & shrubs and allows cutting and mowing only where necessary for safety reasons. This policy results in the most attractive outgrowth of mostly native species at practically no cost.

Present regulations for managing vegetation along highways are reasonable. The DOT needs to make sure that they respond promptly to requests from billboard owners or operators and do the requested work in a satisfactory and timely way, but there is no need to alter the regulations.


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