November 10, 2008
State Senator Kirk Watson attempted to pass a measure through the legislature last year that would classify Texas 71 as a scenic highway, thereby banning future billboards along the road.
“I will file the same legislation I filed last time. I believe Texas 71 and its attractiveness are part of what we’re trying to preserve,” Watson said.
Watson filed the bill at the behest of hill country residents like Barney Bigham who say they are sick of watching the signs clutter up their view.
“They’ve particularly mushroomed in the last year or so,” Bigham said, who said he has filed complaints with the Texas Department of Transportation on some of the signs which he believes are illegal.
“The bill was filed in the last two sessions actually, it hasn’t been protected yet,” said Scenic Texas State Policy Director Margaret Lloyd. “Billboard companies believe it might be soon, so they are trying to jump out and make sure their billboards are erected.”
The law requires billboards on Texas 71 to be within 800 feet of two businesses that are on the same side of the road and at least 1,500 feet apart from each other but there is no concise clear listing of billboard laws on any Texas Web site.
“Billboards are regulated by federal, state and local city ordinances in Texas and it depends on which road you’re talking about as to what the law is controlling that road,” Lloyd said.
Texas 71 falls under Chapter 391 of the Texas Transportation Code because it is a federally funded highway.
Many believe that the restriction of billboards comes into direct conflict with the rights of the property owners who are using those billboards for added revenue each year.
“Once that property owner decides to leverage the public road and the traffic along it, then we believe that becomes a public issue, not a private property issue anymore,” Lloyd said.
Jimmy Gaines, president of the Texas Landowner’s Council, disagrees and believes that the proliferation of billboards is an obvious private property issue. He went on to say, however, that the issue isn’t a forerunning concern for his organization and there are far bigger concerns Texas property owners are currently facing.
“The Fifth Amendment says, when you tell someone they can’t do something, they should be compensated,” he said, adding that the prevailing notion on property rights used to be that unless someone was causing significant harm to their neighbor or others — there was no justification for regulation.
“My personal belief is — the signs just don’t rise to significant harm to anybody,” he said.
Citizens like Bigham say this is not the case. Bigham did acknowledge that at least one of the advertisers on Texas 71 is using the billboards in what he called a tasteful manner. Zoltan David Jewelry has a billboard on 71 that is a picture of the Texas sky with a small advertisement for his company at the bottom of the sign.
“I don’t care for billboards. I think they are often unsightly,” said business owner Zoltan David. “We saw that naked billboard there and we thought lets put the sky back in the view.”
David said that the billboard has brought in quite a bit of business but that a substantial percent of that is Texans coming in to thank him for the simple, scenery-conscious ad.
“Seeing how the billboard is there any way, what we want to do is add a little of our style, which is unpredictable and beautiful and make lemonade out of lemons.”
Like Scenic Texas, Hill Country Alliance is a local group advocating for restrictions of billboards on Texas 71. While alliance president Christy Muse is pleased with the efforts to have it classified as a scenic highway, she believes there is another legal route that could be more affective.
“Really what would make sense is to get some local control to our county commissioner — keep the authority as close to home as possible and that is something we’d really like to see happen,” Muse said.
Precinct 3 County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty also feels the frustration of lack of control over the issue.
“The court is on record with a 5-0 vote (to make Texas 71 a scenic highway),” he said. “That is not county authority, that is the state. The state has turned down the proposal the last legislative cycle where we thought we were going to get help creating a scenic highway designation. It was only at the last minute we found out that wasn’t going to happen.”
Lee Vela, spokesperson for the Outdoor Advertising Association of Texas, said that his industry is already subject to a “myriad of restrictions from federal to state to local,” and that any new ones placed on them by the legislature, they would follow.
He suggested an alternative in to law that he says Texas is currently only one of two states without.
“There is a federal program that does provide roadways scenic designation, with segmentation,” he said, meaning that it would allow billboards in only certain sections of a scenic road.
Even outside the debate over property owner’s rights and beautification, Vela says there is an obvious need for billboards.
“There are businesses that want to advertise along that roadway that are trying to reach the traveling public,” he said. “I tell people all the time, it’s as simple as this: If advertising didn’t work, people wouldn’t buy it. And if it’s working, it’s stimulating the economy through the sale of goods and services.