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Signs Shouldn't Define What State Looks Like

Commentary By KEVIN E. FRY

March 09, 2008

Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposal to ban new contracts for outdoor advertising on state-owned property and put a stop to digital billboards is a bold first step in reclaiming the visual quality of Connecticut's roadways and communities. She has correctly identified billboards as one of the most egregious contributors to visual blight and a threat to the economic health of the state. Deliberate ugliness is not an effective business development strategy.

Although the governor's legislative proposal doesn't address the larger issue of sign proliferation on municipal or private property, removing billboards over time from state land would be a strong statement that Connecticut wants visitors and residents to see and appreciate the state's visual qualities.

As any Hartford commuter knows, billboards proliferate along main highways leading into urban centers and become a city's de facto visual gateway, blocking views of the skyline and neighborhoods. They play a big role in establishing the image of a place.

This is particularly true of the new digital billboards, whose constantly changing images are enormously bright at night and dominate the driver's field of vision, to the detriment of roadside businesses whose own signs or buildings haven't got a chance to be noticed in the face of these giant, glaring, attention-diverting TV screens in the sky.

It's worth noting that New England, with its legendary sense of place, has something of a tradition of resisting intrusive outdoor advertising. Vermont and Maine prohibit all billboards. Rhode Island placed a cap on outdoor advertising years ago, and no longer permits new signs (the recent regrettable and possibly improper conversion of some billboards to digital technologies notwithstanding). Like its regional neighbors, Connecticut has a well-rooted visual and cultural identity that should not be obscured behind acres of vinyl, steel and gargantuan LED screens.

The argument is made that businesses will be crippled if billboards go away. But clearly Vermont and Maine, along with thousands of local jurisdictions and the two other states that ban all billboards, Alaska and Hawaii, understand that there is more to gain economically and culturally by allowing the genuine nature of their places to shine through.

Rather than allowing a small number of national advertisers or local businesses to claim the view for their own purposes, these places understand that by removing blight they can thrive economically in a world that more and more values authenticity, local character and respect for landscape and history.

The removal of signs on state property is a start. As the statewide conversation evolves, the next step would be a total prohibition on all new billboards in the state, no matter where they are located.

The state could join Rhode Island (and recently, Michigan) and permanently freeze the number of billboard permits statewide at current levels (approximately 1,800). In the meantime, though, new policies should immediately prohibit additional conversions to digital billboard technologies, which are aesthetic catastrophes and a hazard to the motoring public, before Connecticut's highways become further degraded.

The idea of removing billboards from Connecticut's highways reminds me of those preservation projects we have all seen where a tacky pasted-on 1970s facade is stripped from a historic building or storefront, revealing something charming and delightful. Afterward, everyone stands around wondering how anyone in their right mind could have covered up the beauty and character of what was underneath.

Perhaps it's time for the people of Connecticut to look at what's been hidden behind the billboards and determine whether something important and valuable has been there all along.

Our hope is that Gov. Rell's proposal (and her personal epiphany) will stimulate a public dialogue about how much of Connecticut's environment should be surrendered to the multinational media companies that dominate the billboard industry. We also hope it will encourage people to see their state with new eyes and recognize how much has been lost by unrestrained billboard blight.

The governor has taken the first step on behalf of the visual integrity of Connecticut now citizens should step in and make it clear to their state and local public officials that they'd like to have their state back.

There is no shortage of beauty, charm, history and character along the state's roads. It would be nice to be able to see it all again.

Kevin E. Fry is the president of Scenic America, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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