In Cities Across Texas, Activists Battle Billboard Companies Nearly 50 years ago, a fight between billboards and natural beauty played out on the national stage. Now the struggle has moved to the states — like Texas, where activists face off with corporations.

In Cities Across Texas, Activists Battle Billboard Companies

In Cities Across Texas, Activists Battle Billboard Companies

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More than 350 towns and cities in Texas have banned new billboards, but billboards companies are still pressing for new and taller signs. John Burnett hide caption

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John Burnett

More than 350 towns and cities in Texas have banned new billboards, but billboards companies are still pressing for new and taller signs.

John Burnett

Language warning: This story contains words some may find offensive.

The Highway Beautification Act will be 50 years old next year. As envisioned by Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, it was supposed to protect the natural landscape from billboards.

Ever since its passage, scenic activists and billboard companies have been at war over the views along American highways. The outdoor advertising industry says its signs are informational, and helpful to local businesses. Open-space advocates call them "sky trash" and "litter on a stick."

The battle continues today. You can see it on the roads of Texas, where more than 350 towns and cities have banned new billboards — but billboard companies continue to push for taller and more technologically advanced signs.

Marred Vistas And Distracted Drivers

LBJ didn't think much of the billboard lobby. It thwarted Lady Bird's vision to beautify America's roadsides, and it frustrated him as a politician who wanted to get his way.

"This damn billboard lobby has run this country," Johnson said in a telephone call in 1968, three years after passage of the Highway Beautification Act. "I never seen such a goddam group of selfish, eager hogs. They won't even let people sit down and try to reason with 'em," he said.

Times have changed. The billboard lobby — though still powerful and well-funded — is not the lightning rod it was in Washington, D.C., a half-century ago.

Today, the fights have mostly moved to statehouses and city halls, where billboard lobbyists press for newer signs, taller signs, tree-cutting to improve signs' visibility and big condemnation payouts for old signs.

Over the summer, a battle played out in Texas when billboard companies asked the state highway department to let them raise signs to the height of a six-story building. The public was not happy.

One public commenter, Chris Cornwall, said the Texas Department of Transportation should be more concerned with promoting safety — and keeping drivers' eyes on the road — than with raising billboards.

Another, Katherine Romans, said, "These vistas and dark skies are already marred in many places by the proliferation of billboards." Raising their height would only make it worse, she said.

Theirs were among 900 public comments — all opposing the rule change that would have permitted heightened signs.

Late last month, the Texas Department of Transportation removed the proposal to raise billboards from consideration.

Grandfathered In

The recent skirmish in Texas underscores a truth about the modern politics of billboards. Their unpopularity is growing, even as their profits do, too.

More and more cities see billboards as visual blight. Four states — Vermont, Hawaii, Alaska and Maine — have banned them outright. Rhode Island and Oregon have said no new billboards.

In Texas, 388 cities — including most large and medium-size cities — have ordinances prohibiting new billboards. One of them is Austin, where Mike Martinez is on the city council.

"You know, the sign pollution that inundates our roadways is a big concern to a lot of residents," Martinez says. "I just have seen this ongoing, continued struggle of trying to eliminate billboards within the city limits of Austin."

Billboard companies understand that metropolitan aesthetics are changing.

"A lot of cities across Texas have said no new ones, but most everything that's in those cities has been grandfathered," says Lee Vela, president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas.

"So it doesn't mean elimination of the industry, it just means we don't want to see more growth. And we respect those decisions in those cities."

'The Billboard Protection Act'

The big question is, 49 years after its passage, has the Highway Beautification Act lived up to its name?

Margaret Lloyd, vice president of Scenic Texas, believes it hasn't. "In fact, it's known as the Billboard Protection Act," she says.

As it happens, Houston — legendary for sprawl and a zoning free-for-all — is a model city for billboard control. Since 1980, the number of billboards here has dropped from 15,000 to under 1,500.

But they're still lined up along the sides of the city's Interstate 45.

"The city can only do so much. These roads are federal highways. They're regulated by the feds," Lloyd says. "The Highway Beautification Act has protected these billboards from being removed by the city unless the city pays cash compensation."

Don Glendenning, president of Scenic Dallas, stands with volunteer Marc Shidid below one of Dallas' new digital billboards. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

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John Burnett/NPR

Don Glendenning, president of Scenic Dallas, stands with volunteer Marc Shidid below one of Dallas' new digital billboards.

John Burnett/NPR

Cities that ban new billboards, like Houston, can either pay the billboard company to take them down — which gets very expensive, very quickly — or swap old billboards for new ones.

For instance, Dallas has also banned new billboards, but it made a deal with the billboard companies. For every three old billboards you take down, the city council said, we'll let you erect one new digital billboard. The industry is erecting digital billboards as fast as it can, because companies can charge eight different advertisers for messages that flash consecutively on one sign.

Don Glendenning, president of Scenic Dallas, stands on a grassy patch on the northwest edge of downtown. Above him is a tall, double-sided digital billboard that's flashing message after message. "It is, to my eye, jarringly out of place," he says.

Dallas will soon have 50 digital billboards, more than any other U.S. city except for Los Angeles.

"I think we got a really bad deal in Dallas. I think the industry made out like bandits," Glendenning says. "It's the job of the industry to make money for their shareholders. They're doing a great job."

Giving Back, Growing Profits

The billboard industry insists it doesn't just sell sign space, Vela says. It also gives it away to law enforcement to post most-wanted photos, and to emergency managers to use during emergencies.

"That's all free of charge," Vela says. "So we want to give back to our communities that we're working in."

Even as state and local governments enact more restrictions on billboards, the industry is thriving.

A report by the market research firm IBIS World says outdoor advertising is a $10 billion industry that's projected to grow 4.5 percent in the next five years.

And in Texas, the birthplace of the Highway Beautification Act, cities continue to curtail new billboards — while rural highways are filling up with empty signs looking for customers.