Regardless of the products and services screaming at us from bright, enormous roadside signs, few elements of our landscape generate louder opinions than billboards. Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposal earlier this year to eliminate billboards on state land made national news, spawned a flurry of strongly worded letters to the editor and had bloggers working overtime.
Concern about billboards has existed since the dawn of the automobile age. On a visit to East Windsor in the 1920s, Odell Shepard, who would become Connecticut's lieutenant governor in 1941, complained of "bill-boards" that forced him to peer at the countryside "through a lattice of silk-hose and soft collar ads." Remembering an age before the big signs, he considered them "fungoid growths of ugliness" and a "brutally insolent invasion" that, among other things, spent millions "helping Americans distinguish between three or four equally contemptible cigarettes."
On the other hand, Philip Johnson, a resident of New Canaan and one of the giants of 20th-century architecture, is said to have preferred highways with billboards to the Merritt Parkway's "green tunnel," which he characterized as "a nightmare of monotony. A nurseryman's bonanza."
As a young legislative staffer in 1979, I experienced the issue's trademark rancor firsthand when working closely with then-state Rep. Dorothy McCluskey of North Branford on "An Act Concerning Nonconforming Signs." Passed despite strenuous objection from the outdoor advertising industry, the bill would have enabled towns to remove signs that did not conform to zoning, provided compensation was paid. At the urging of businesses, Gov. William O'Neill vetoed the bill for an alleged procedural flaw.
Signs seem a trivial aesthetic matter compared with other issues afflicting our landscape, such as the loss of farmland and the eutrophication of lakes; their importance pales beside the need to maintain the very roads and bridges from which they can be seen. But the issue remains surprisingly resilient because billboards seem to simultaneously embody two conflicting aspects of our self-image as Americans.
Billboards are often derided as a desecration of America the beautiful, a tawdry and exploitative cheapening of the countryside that obscures the public view and turns highways into cluttered "buyways." But billboards are also lauded as emblematic of the nation's brawling entrepreneurial spirit and freedom of expression. They display valuable travel information, promote local businesses, and provide a public service with ads that help identify criminals, increase awareness of health issues and assist charities raising money.
From behind the wheel, I prefer looking at Connecticut's farms, cities, rivers and hillsides more than flashy billboards trying to sell me on something. On the other hand, I don't lose much sleep over the billboard located a short walk from my home, regardless of whether it's hawking burgers or a politician. While traveling I-90 through South Dakota this summer, I actually enjoyed the seemingly endless parade of campy and colorful billboards that advertised local cafes and motels, as well as attractions from ghost towns to reptile farms.
Wall Drug, perhaps the country's No.1 tourist trap, spoke from dozens of billboards for hundreds of miles. Of course, vast, flat and almost treeless South Dakota is a lot further from Connecticut than mere mileage would indicate, and the huge signs appear smaller there.
The merit of billboards depends less on their design and message than it does on how they fit into their surroundings. Billboards do not by themselves render a place ugly.
Removing billboards would not end free expression nor turn communities into economic Saharas. Vermont, Hawaii, Maine and Alaska have long banned billboards without suffering large-scale commercial dislocations; in fact, there is some evidence that the absence of billboards has been good for business. Geographically and socially diverse, all four depend significantly on tourism and so care about their appearance.
If our perception of billboards depends on context, then those who make land-use decisions ought to be armed with the legal tools needed to determine what their communities look like, regardless of whether they decide to promote or eliminate these grand placards.
Let the debate continue. It's a healthy sign when people care what their landscape looks like.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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