Regulation Of The Outdoor Advertising Industry

The outdoor posters and signs created in the late 1800’s, evolved into what we know today as the billboard. The outdoor advertising industry was born and a new method for business owners to sell their products steadily increased by leaps and bounds. As with all change, it is not always welcome, groups such as Scenic America complained for years that the outdoor advertising industry was causing damage to scenic landscapes by clearing trees and other natural habitats to make room for what they called “visual pollution”, otherwise known as a billboard.

This article will explain an attempt to regulate the outdoor advertising industry through the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (HBA), the provisions of the ACT, and it’s impact on the outdoor advertising industry.

On October 22, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson influenced by his wife Lady Bird, signed into law the Highway Beautification Act. It became one of the United States first federal contemporary environmental laws. Highway beautification was an important project for the President. He wanted to protect the scenic beauty of America’s roadsides by regulating and eliminating what he thought to be excessive and unsightly billboards. The President was not fully satisfied with the Act, because the original proposal was significantly diluted after passing the Congress and the Senate. But he signed it anyway, and looked at it as a first step to preserving America’s beauty and regulating the outdoor advertising industry.

The Act pertained to only Federal-Aid Primary and Defense Highways and limited out door advertising billboards to state sanctioned commercial and industrial zones. It banned construction of new billboards on these highways and required the removal of illegal billboards. It prohibited local and state governments from removing billboards, without compensating the owner of the sign. As an incentive to implement the new outdoor advertising laws, federal funds and monetary incentives were made available. The Act requires all states to effectively enforce the laws or lose 5% of their federal funding.

The impact on regulating the outdoor advertising billboard industry was not successful basically due to its own design. The allowed exceptions reduced the Act’s overall effectiveness. For example, the Act allows stationary billboards to be constructed in any industrial or commercial area that is adjacent to interstate and federal-aid primary highways. That could be just about everywhere and the guidelines for determining commercial and industrial activity are weak at best.

The Act also makes it difficult if not impossible, to remove outdoor advertising billboards that don’t meet the standard guidelines. Amortization is often used when retiring a billboard. The billboard owner is given up to an eight-year grace period before the billboard has to be physically removed. The time frame allowed the owner to as least recover some or all of his investment. Although allowing the billboard owners to amortize the billboards seemed fair, the outdoor advertising billboard lobby worked hard to convince congress to ban amortization along federal-aid primary and interstate highways. And in 1978 that is exactly what Congress did. Giving the illegal and non-compliant outdoor advertising billboards protection under the House Beautification Act. Unless of course, the state and local governments picked up the tab and paid with their taxpayer’s funds. That option went over like a lead balloon.

It seems that the House Beautification Act was doomed before it even got started. President Johnson’s vision of removing and regulating outdoor advertising billboards was sabotaged by the exceptions that diluted the original proposal. In addition, a strong outdoor advertising billboard lobbying group carried a lot more clout than given credit for.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, banning amortization is responsible for over 38,000 outdoor advertising billboards still standing even though local ordinances are trying hard to get them removed. A removal cost cannot be determined. The federal government has exhausted more than $250 million to the outdoor advertising billboard industry resulting in practically no impact.