By David Baron
Washington, DC (September 8, 2008)- Across America, communities intent on beautifying their roadways often plant trees. But in some places, those trees have encountered a powerful foe: the billboard industry. This is a story about 16 crape myrtles, four billboards and one road.
Tacky Town Gets A Makeover
U.S. Highway 192 is a six-lane strip of asphalt in Osceola County, Fla., outside Walt Disney World. Families come here to ride go-carts and roller coasters, buy T-shirts and gorge themselves at all-you-can-eat buffets. But back in the 1980s, this tourist strip was losing business to newer, nicer roadways. Its image needed improvement.
“It got its fair share of bad names,” says Hector Lizasuain, who oversees the highway for Osceola County. “At one time, this place was considered ‘Tacky Town,’ ‘The Failed Las Vegas.’ I think that’s what drove this community to do something about that and change that.”
What the community did was launch a beautification project. Highway 192 used to be exceptionally plain. It was lined by weed-filled ditches, with no sidewalks and poor lighting. It was drab.
So the property owners voted to tax themselves $29 million to make the roadway safer and prettier. “Look at it today,” says Lizasuain. “We have 10-foot sidewalks on both sides of the road. We have bicycle paths, well-lit bus shelters, information-filled kiosks. And that’s not even mentioning the beautiful landscaping that we have out here.”
Trees Vs. Billboards
The landscaping included 360 palms, 300 oleanders and 1,400 loquats, among other trees. But as the county made these improvements several years ago, some people were not happy. “We alerted [the county] that … we’ve got a problem,” recalls Craig Swygert. He heads the Orlando division of Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns billboards along Highway 192.
“The billboards were there first, and the trees started popping up, and they were done so in a way that they would block the view of the billboard,” he says. He argued that by planting the trees where it did, the government was acting unfairly. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you a permit to be in business, but then we’re going to take it away after you’ve already invested all this money.'”
Clear Channel and other billboard companies complained that beautification projects on a number of Florida roads threatened their business, so they lobbied the state Legislature for protection.
A New Law
In 2006, lawmakers drafted a bill to outlaw the planting of trees on the public right-of-way in front of billboards. Each sign would be guaranteed a 500-foot-long view, uninterrupted by a single branch of leaf.
At the time, Randy Johnson was state representative for Osceola County along Highway 192. He supported the bill. “Those billboards are important, they feed lots of families,” he testified at a hearing. “This is a tourism corridor. Tourism depends on billboards, not on trees.”
Osceola County officials vehemently disagreed, but the Legislature passed the law, and it went into effect in 2006 just after the beautification project on Highway 192 celebrated its completion. A few months later, the state transportation agency announced that 38 of the newly planted trees were in violation of the law because they stood in front of four billboards. It said those trees would have to be cut down.
“I felt very- at that time- very betrayed,” says Lizasuain. Others felt the same way.
Have You No Shame?
The Orlando Sentinel ran a front-page article about the trees’ impending demise. The story provoked a strong public response. Orlando resident Paul Adsett penned a letter to the editor. “It would be hard to imagine a more compulsive demonstration of the abusive power of an industry-lobbying group … to overrule the public interest in the name of corporate profits,” he wrote. “To Clear Channel, Craig Swygert and Randy Johnson, I say, ‘have you no shame?'”
James Browski, a homeowner in the Indian Ridge Oaks neighborhood near Highway 192, wrote angrily to Johnson: “Trees are beautiful, billboards are ugly. Thanks to you, ugly wins.” Orlando resident Sandra Butler posted a comment to an online discussion board. “What kind of ignorant person passed this law?” she asked. “Haven’t the developers taken away enough trees and plant life?”
Who Controls The View?
The public outcry wasn’t just about trees. It was about a larger issue: Who gets to control the view? Why should a private industry dictate what the public sees on a public highway? “The issue of billboard companies seeking to cut down public trees is something that’s happening all over the country,” says Bill Jonson, who serves on the board of the advocacy group Scenic America.
Jonson calls this industry lobbying effort inappropriate – “because they’re public trees” – but it has been effective. Several states now have laws that give billboards precedence over beautification projects, and those laws often leave local communities powerless to save their trees.
At first, it appeared Osceola County was destined to lose its fight against Clear Channel, but as the negative publicity spread, Clear Channel said it was open to compromise. The county made an offer. What if it kept the trees pruned to limit their impact on the billboards? Clear Channel accepted the offer and said most of the trees could stay. But the company took a hard line against 16 crape myrtles clustered in the median. It insisted that those trees had to go.
“That’s almost like someone coming in and saying you’ve got twins, and one of them is going to be sacrificed to save the other,” says Lizasuain. But he had no choice, and in October 2006, his crew cut the crape myrtles to stumps.
Lizasuain thought that was the end of the story, but he’s since made a discovery. It turns out the crape myrtles did not die as intended. They are now sprouting through a bed of low-growing shrubs on the highway median.
Lizasuain is quietly letting the trees live. He keeps them trimmed to a tiny size so no one notices they’re there, but to him they serve in silent protest to the billboard law. Should those in power someday change the law back in favor of the trees, the crape myrtles will be ready to emerge and provide a canopy of flowers that, for now, remains illegal.
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