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Billboards away?

It is no secret that billboard removal under the amended Highway Beautification Act of 1965 has ground to a halt. Most of the signs that were to have come down as a result of that act are still in place, and no new funds for sign removals are in sight. The basic reason is that Congress, having first mandated cash "compensation" payments for billboard removals, has failed to vote funds for completion of the program.

Moreover, Congress in 1978 amended the act to require cash compensation for "any" sign removed, in any state, whether or not the sign was adjacent to a federal-aid highway.m This amendment, which of course constitutes an outrageous assault against the traditional powers of state and local governments, was adopted quietly without hearings. It represented perhaps the high-water mark of arrogance of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA). A contributing factor in the OAAA's triumphant march, however, has been the fact that anti-billboard forces have not, until this year, been organized at the federal level for effective opposition.

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Now all that is changed. Earlier this year a group of environmentalists met in Washington and put together the National Coalition to Preserve Scenic Beauty. A nucleus of them were members of the National Advisory Committee on Outdoor Advertising and Motorist Information (set up to "reassess" the Highway Beautification Program). The coalition was founded as an educational body, including as organizational members such well-known national groups as the National Wildlife Federation and the American Society of Landscape Architects, not to mention individual members from 23 states and the District of Columbia. It will, we hope, ensure that future actions of Congress inthe sign-control field will be more reflective of the public interest than those of the recent past.

Those of us who for years have been working to improve the visual quality of America's roadscapes are hopeful that the presence of this new national coalition will help speed the transition from a visually cluttered land, where good taste and the right of privacy have for too long been pushed aside by the strident claims of hucksterism, to a land whose natural beauty is the object of loving and widespread care and concern.

We take comfort, for example, in the fact that Sen. Robert Stafford, a staunch foe of billboards, is now chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

We are also heartened by the fact that Congress in its present cost-cutting and deregulatory mood may be amenable to terminating the mandatory compensation principle which is at the heart of the present impasse. There was sentiment in the national advisory committee's subcommittee on legislative change for recommending to the Congress that they either vastly reduce the scope of the 1965 act (limiting it, in effect, to the rural Interstate), or scrap it entirely and return the highway beautification function to the states. In the former case the cost of compensation payments would be substantially reduced; in the latter case they would be totally eliminated. (In either case provision would, of course, have to be made to prevent erection of new billboards in areas where federal funds have been expended for sign removals.)

So the next few months will be full of interest and hope for those striving for improved visual amenities. Who knows? Perhaps we Americans are now poised to shake off the frustrations and legal obstructions of recent years and to bestir ourselves to protect and preserve the natural beauty with which our land abounds.

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