Note: This column of mine was published in the Hazleton, Pa., daily five years ago, but its message remains meaningful.
The state of Vermont recently celebrated a major anniversary, and it had nothing to do with the construction of a professional sports arena, subdivision, airport or other land-consuming project.
Vermont, in 1968, said “no” to the placement – anywhere in the Green Mountain State – of new billboards, those oftentimes mammoth placards atop steel posts that scream to passing motorists, urging them to buy this product or that service.
Although several states have followed Vermont’s lead, the Green Mountain State was the first to outlaw billboards and enact a set of stringent rules regulating all kinds of other signage. The 1968 law prohibits privately owned, off-premise signs and restricts the size, height, and distance from roads of said signs. Signs also aren’t allowed to have moving parts or flashing lights. All signs are forbidden on the legal right-of-way. Communities may adopt laws more stringent than the state’s.
Proponents of Vermont’s billboard law point with pride to the state’s scenic, uncluttered roadsides as a key attraction for visitors, especially the thousands-upon-thousands of “leaf-peepers” who visit Vermont to view the bright foliage of autumn. (These same roadsides benefit from the anti-litter campaign launched when the state began requiring sellers of many canned and bottled beverages to pay a 5-cent deposit per container to customers returning them.)
"Whereas, billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising are becoming a matter of increasing concern to many residents . . .”
So began the joint resolution of the Vermont State Assembly in 1967, when it created the Committee to Study Outdoor Advertising, which included future U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords. It held public hearings, conducted research and reviewed the relevant law on outdoor advertising.
The committee's report, in part, stated: "Our scenic resources . . . have contributed much to our economic development by attracting tourists, . . . residents, and new industries and cultural facilities. . . .[T]he scattering of outdoor advertising throughout the state is detrimental to the preservation of these resources, and consequently to the economic base of the state."
So, in the following year, Vermont prohibited new billboards and provided an amortization period of five years to remove existing billboards. By 1974, Vermont had felled its last billboard.
In 1997, the state commissioned an independent study of outdoor advertising to review the success of the billboard ban and to assess other forms of advertising. Public opinion polls and studies echoed the 1967 report. The study stated that traveler information solutions must maintain Vermont's quality environment, continue to prohibit billboards, and prevent sign clutter.
Businesses still receive the state government’s help through the posting of small chest-high signs devoid of accouterments which simply identify its name and travel distance.
Some Googling turned up choice statements like this one attributed to former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm: "Billboards contribute a minuscule amount to our economic well-being, but they impose a high cost. They detract from Colorado's attractiveness to tourists and from the pleasant surroundings for our residents."
At the municipal level, more than 700 communities nationwide prohibit the construction of new billboards. Why? Because billboard control improves community character and quality of life – both of which directly impact local economies. In fact, despite billboard industry claims to the contrary, communities and states that enact tough billboard controls have actually enjoyed strong economic growth (the current recission aside).
While some signs are necessary to provide directions to travelers, most billboards merely contribute to visual clutter – also known as “blight.” For example, on one section of road in Hampton, Va. (and I have driven this very stretch), there were so many signs that a driver going 45 miles per hour would need to read 1,363 words per minutes just to understand all the information. That is five times the normal reading speed of a stationary person.
The billboard industry often claims that controlling outdoor advertising will, over time, create economic ghost towns. In fact, the undeniable aesthetic improvements to a community that come from controlling billboards actually helps its economy, notes Scenic America, a non-profit organization founded, in part, on the strength of Lady Bird Johnson’s campaign to beautify America’s roadsides.
Billboards are both a symptom and cause of urban blight. And the presence of fewer signs actually signals a community’s economic health.
Mull this tidbit from Scenic America: Communities can thrive without billboards, because most billboards have no connection to the local economy. They advertise either national brands or out-of-state products and services . . . Billboard industry naysayers claim that businesses such as gas stations and eating and drinking establishments would be financially hurt by reducing or eliminating their outdoor ads. On the contrary, in cities and towns such as Williamsburg, Va., Raleigh, N.C., and Houston the period following implementation of stricter billboard controls and/or bans on new billboard construction was marked by steady growth of sales in those industries.
Consider what happened in Raleigh: Sales for eating and drinking establishments rose from $243 million in 1989, before billboard control, to $307 million in 1992, after controls were introduced, a rise of about 20 percent.
Billboard control is especially key for communities that depend on tourism. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, travelers spent $541 billion nationwide in 1999. The President's Commission on Americans Outdoors reported that “natural beauty” was the most important criteria for adults choosing a site for outdoor recreation. “The more a community does to enhance its unique natural, scenic, historic, and architectural assets, the more tourists it attracts.”
Back to the scenic vistas of Vermont: When the Green Mountain State took down its last billboard in 1975, the state’s tourism revenues increased by more than 50 percent in the following three years. The president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce noted at the time: "Although there was some initial sensitivity that removing billboards might hurt tourism, it has had the opposite effect. Tourism is up for all businesses large and small."
Many prime tourist nations prohibit new billboard construction even as their tourism revenues keep rising. The long list includes Martha's Vineyard, Mass.; Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, N.C.; South Padre Island, Texas; Santa Fe, N.M.; Aspen and Boulder, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon.
Vermont is hardly alone at banning billboards statewide. The others include Hawaii and Maine and each continues drawing people from around the world to view their scenic wonders.
Remember these lessons from elsewhere the next time you’re motoring along a well-traveled Pennsylvania highway.