Thursday, September 1, 2011

Veto of Billboard Bill Should Stand

By John Regenbogen

In the final hours of the regular legislative session this past spring, the Missouri General Assembly added highly controversial, pro-billboard language to an otherwise uncontroversial transportation bill. The bill passed on the last day of session but fortunately was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon because the bill substantially weakens the ability of local communities to restrict billboards.

The governor’s veto is not the last word, however, as the General Assembly begins a veto session September 14 and leaders appear intent to try to override the veto by garnering votes of two-thirds of the legislature. Ironically, while all indications are that the General Assembly appears poised to finally act on a matter of basic fairness and return control of the St. Louis police department from the state to the city, it may seek to take away the right of local citizens – through their locally elected officials -- to regulate billboards according to community standards.

As the governor wrote in his veto letter, it is important for Missouri’s cities and towns to be allowed to preserve their community character in a manner that reflects local standards. A growing number of communities across Missouri feel they have accumulated enough billboards and have enacted either explicit prohibitions on new billboards or restrictive spacing and location requirements that ensure billboard blight doesn’t get out of control. From our state’s largest city, Kansas City, to rapidly growing suburbs like O’Fallon and Chesterfield, to small towns like New Haven and Defiance that depend heavily upon tourism, dozens of Missouri communities have enacted prohibitions or restrictive ordinances to protect against excessive billboard blight. But because the new language added to the transportation bill would take away this authority of local communities, the governor had no choice but to veto the bill. In fact, the bill’s extremely industry-friendly “customary use” requirement would make Missouri’s billboard law among the weakest in the nation with respect to powers of local control.

The billboard industry argues that there aren’t enough billboards in our state, which is absurd. Many Missourians feel strongly that the state has too much billboard blight and that a reduction of clutter over time will improve our communities and increase tourism. In fact, just shy of 50 percent of Missouri’s voters supported a ballot initiative in 2000 that would have prohibited new billboards anywhere in Missouri. If more Missouri communities follow the Texas model where over 300 communities have prohibited new billboards, (the fierce Texas pride in their beauty is perhaps best represented by the well-known anti-litter slogan, “Don’t Mess With Texas”) the sky won’t fall and local communities will continue to thrive, if not improve.

But the veto isn’t about the number of billboards in the state, whether we have too many or too few. Rather, it is about keeping state law intact in order to allow local governments to continue making the decisions with respect to billboards in their communities. The Missouri billboard industry may not like this law, but we must retain the common-sense notion that local communities are best able to make these local decisions. Not all communities want to take a tough stance on billboards, of course, but polling has shown that the vast majority of citizens support the strong right of local control on this issue without interference from Jefferson City.

Billboards may have a place in Missouri. But that place should not be every place. At the very least, Missouri’s local governments must retain the right to determine what is appropriate in their communities. Gov. Nixon’s veto must be upheld and the General Assembly should end its effort to put the interests of a powerful industry ahead of local communities.
Regenbogen is executive director of Scenic Missouri.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the Missouri Forum. 9/11