Sign Controls: A Tough Issue Worth Discussing
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind.”
Like the Five Man Electrical Band that sang those words in their 1971 hit, “Signs”, my perfect world would have far fewer signs and billboards.
Public opinion surveys dating back several decades confirm that most Americans dislike billboards and would prefer much less outdoor advertising of all kinds. So widespread is this sentiment that even a place that is arguably one of the gaudiest cities in America - Reno, Nevada - voted a decade ago to ban construction of new billboards.
Scenic America (www.scenic.org) reports that Floridians oppose increases in the number of billboards in their communities by a ten to one margin. Nearly two thirds of New Hampshire residents oppose billboard advertising on highways. Four out of five Houstonians support the elimination of billboards in their city. More than two thirds of Missourians think that fewer billboards would make their state more attractive for tourists.
Here in Central Pennsylvania, people often observe that the State College area seems more aesthetically attractive and less cluttered with signs and billboards. That didn’t happen by accident. State College and many of the surrounding townships have stringent signage regulations.
Though there appears to be a strong distaste for outdoor advertising, the vocal minority on the other side of the issue would vehemently disagree. Businesses that use such advertising to sell their products or those that realize significant financial benefit from the sign business will argue that it is an important and notable contributor to the local economy. Those that lease ground for signs often contend that the erection of signs is one of their private property rights.
Beyond the concerns over visual blight, opponents counter that signs are distracting to drivers and invade the scenic “viewsheds” of those using public rights-of-ways.
When, then, do the property owners’ right to allow the erection of the massive sign infringe upon the publics’ right to see a sunset, a mountain side, a farm field or a patch of forest – all things that are part of our “commonwealth”. Similarly, how do we balance the financial benefits of the land owner or billboard company with the devaluation of a neighboring property? These are difficult legal and ethical questions.
Several new billboards, one of them a brightly illuminated digital board, have sprung up in the community over the last few months. Some stretches of road in Blair County already have more than twenty billboards per mile. This should raise an important question for all of us that live here. How many billboards are too many?
Though much smaller in scale, plastic street side signs present similar problems to their larger cousins. The primary election season has brought a rash of political campaign signs, joining the cage fight promotional signs and the advertising for roofing and painting contractors. Though some such signs are quite legal on private property, they are illegal in public right-of-ways. They frequently damage mowing equipment when accidentally run over and often become a source of litter.
Clearly, sign control is a difficult challenge but it is one worth discussing if we care about preserving the scenic landscapes of an incredibly beautiful place.