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Trees vs. billboards: round 2.

It was November of 1990, and Marcia Bansley was alarmed. Bansley is executive director of Trees Atlanta, a nonprofit citizen's group that plants and conserves trees. She was upset because she had become aware at a public hearing that thousands of roadside trees gracing Georgia's highways were threatened with potential destruction at the hands of Georgia's billboard industry.

The board of directors of the Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) was about to approve an audacious new rule that would allow publicly owned trees to be sacrificed to make billboards visible to passing motorists. (The trees grow on the public right-of-way, whereas the billboards are privately owned and erected on private property.)

This DOT rule would have flown in the face of policy established nearly 10 years before by DOT's former commissioner-a policy declaring that trees growing in front of roadside billboards could not be thinned, trimmed, cut, or pruned.

The state's old rule applied to billboards erected along the federal interstate system and other primary routes supported by federal funds. These are referred to in billboard parlance as conforming billboards" because they conform to the federal transportation code. The old rule also applied to "nonconforming billboards," which are those that were standing when Georgia adopted its Outdoor Advertising Law in 1971. Although lawfully erected, they no longer comply with state law or state regulations due to subsequent changes in those laws or rules.

The proposed law that had Marcia Bansley so alarmed would not only have reversed the state DOT's previous regs; it would also e run contrary to May 1990 guidelines set up by the Federal Highway Administration. These guidelines oppose cutting publicly owned roadside trees to improve visibility of privately owned billboards. (See AMERICAN FORESTS, September/October 1990.)

During much of 1990, the billboard industry's statewide lobby group, the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia (OAAG), had quietly lobbied the DOT's 10-member board of directors. OAAG's efforts were successful, and in August of 1990 the board directed the DOT staff to prepare rules and regulations providing for tree trimming and removal of trees on publicly owned rights-of-way. The rule DOT came up with allowed for removal of trees with trunks up to two inches in diameter in front of conforming billboards. (Nonconforming ones were not mentioned.)

The required hearing on the proposed new rule was held in mid-November of last year. The well-organized billboard industry swamped the hearing room with membership and friends. Saying they supported vegetation control," but not the proposed two-inch rule as drafted by DOT staff, the industry representatives made a presentation of their own ideas for a more sweeping rule that would, in effect, allow clearcutting in front of all billboards-conforming and nonconforming (about 8,000 in all)-for a distance of 500 feet (approximately the length of two football fields) and including plants and trees up to a four inch trunk diameter. If necessary, trees with even larger trunks could be removed with special permission. They proposed to replant three small trees in other locations for every large tree cut. "That's like equating a company CEO to three 19-year-olds," one unimpressed environmentalist later remarked. Because little advance notice of the hearing was given, tree advocates were not well represented, except for Marcia Bansley and a few others. Seeing no heavy opposition to OAAG's scheme, three DOT members formed a vegetation-control subcommittee, subsequently producing the propose rules the billboard industry desired. A new hearing was set for March 7.

Bansley loves a challenge, and with the strong backing of Trees Atlanta's board of directors, she spearheaded a campaign to change the transportation board's mind. She joined forces with Spencer Lee, an intelligent, articulate lawyer and environmental activist from Albany, Georgia, who serves on the national board of Scenic America. Remarking on the billboard industry's greed, Lee said, "From fattening the pig, they went to slaughtering the hog!"

Bansley and Lee were joined by individuals throughout the state and organizations like the Georgia Wildlife Federation and the Georgia Conservancy. Together, they would fight with facts, fax, and fervor a battle that-at first-seemed lost.

Realizing that a statewide coalition was vital, Bansley and Lee formed Everybody's Trees. While awaiting the March hearing, the coalition requested an hour's time with the DOT board on February 20, 1991, so they could present their point of view.

Several coalition members spoke at that February meeting, including Peggy White, outgoing president of the 17,000-member Garden Club of Georgia, and Hans Neuhauser, an officer of the Georgia Conservancy. State Senator Mike Egan told of the bill he was sponsoring to prohibit tree trimming on public land; and Ed McMahon, former president of Scenic America, flew in from Washington, DC, to dramatize through a slide presentation the billboard industry's negative impact on economic growth and the environment.

All wore bright green stick-ons with the words, "Save Our Trees," donated by a printer; and all underscored that they had constituencies that opposed the proposed rule. "DOT board members were totally passive," says Bansley, and showed little interest in our presentation."

But Bansley had alerted the media, and the Associated Press was there. So was a TV crew from Augusta, Georgia, and the Atlanta journal/constitution, which ran a photo of Bansley the next day and a story under the headline: "Ax Tree-Cutting Plan, Board Told."

As facts "spread like wildfire," says Bansley, so did outrage, and additional groups joined the Everybody's Trees coalition, including: the Atlanta Audubon Society, the Georgia chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the Sierra Club; the American Forestry Association; the Georgia Urban Forest Council; Friends of the Mountains, the Acworth Business Association, the Metropolitan Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association, and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Among prominent individuals present was Dr. Eugene Odum, the Father of Modern Ecology," who signed on as advisor.

During this time, the Everybody's Trees coalition produced information packages that included names and addresses of all DOT board members. These packages were sent to editors of board members'hometown newspapers and to garden clubs around the state, which produced hundreds of letters targeted at individual board members, trying to persuade them to withdraw the rule.

From all points of the Georgia compass, citizens tackled the issue head on. Augustan Roy Simkins "was like a Paul Revere," says Bansley, alerting people who had radio, TV, and newspaper contacts. Personnel of an entire company in Thomaston wrote letters, encouraged by one woman who hurried back early from vacation to make sure the letters went out. Editorials appeared in papers from Savannah to Columbus, as did letters to the editor.

So, unexpectedly for tree advocates, the March 7 hearing was a bitter disappointment. Quietly scheduled by the DOT board at an obscure junior college in Macon-a 90-minute drive from Atlanta-it nonetheless drew 40 environmentally active citizens from around the state. Highly respected landscape architect Ed Daugherty, a man of impeccable credentials, canceled appointments to make the trip. Garden club women and college students converged from around the state, as did Bansley and Lee.

All had prepared remarks and were angry at the announcement that no public comments would be heard. Instead, those in attendance could either speak to four court stenographers or write remarks on cards provided by the DOT. The upshot, of course, was the muting (intentionally?) of public opinion. "We lined up in the aisles like cattle," said one environmentalist, "at what was really a public writing, not a public hearing."

Once again, the OAAG packed the meeting, this time with at least two busloads of merchants and billboard owners. As in the mid-November hearing, tree advocates were hopelessly outnumbered.

The press was again present. Still, Sylvia Gibson, president-elect of the Garden Club of Georgia, told a reporter from the Atlanta journal/Constitution, "I don't think this hearing will change anything; they've already made up their minds."

Transportation board chairman Frank Morast, a banker, defended the format of the hearing as a way to allow everyone to speak his or her mind, telling the journal/constitution that comments would be reviewed and considered, but still predicting the measure's passage. "Businesses need those signs for advertising," he told a Macon Telegraph reporter, adding, "A lot of people get killed by hitting trees when they run off the road."

"It looked bad after the hearing," says Bansley, "and we knew we had to send massive numbers of letters to the legal department of the DOT." The board's vote was due at their April 18 meeting.

Trees Atlanta sent notifications to its members, asking them to write DOT immediately. Petitions were circulated; close to 500 names were secured at Atlanta's annual Flower Show alone. Meanwhile, the OAAG was circulating petitions at highway restaurants.

Excellent coverage continued in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. "Don't Let Trees Fall" headlined a post-hearing editorial. The message: "If the idea of sacrificing public greenery for private gain strikes you as wrong, write a letter ... today." Or fax it, the editorial added, giving the DOT's number.

Celestine Sibley, a beloved Atlanta Constitution columnist, took up the beat. She wrote a column headlined, "Let's See Trees, Not Billboards," and she, too, included the fax number. So popular is she-and so influential the paper-the DOT fax machine went through three rolls of paper coping with the letters that poured in.

The Atlanta newspaper also gave space on Sunday, March 17, for the issue's pros and cons. Bansley wrote, "The billboard lobby quietly worked with selected DOT board members to draft a rule allowing the equivalent of a chainsaw massacre of the public's trees, creating a horror show of destroyed landscape along our roadsides."

Countered Randall Romig, vice president of one of Georgia's largest outdoor advertising firms and president of the OAAG, "This would be no 'chainsaw massacre.' It would be trimming,' as defined by Webster: 'to make trim and neat by cutting.' "

In a March feature headlined "ClearCut Conflict," the Atlanta Constitution pointed out that one board member sold thousands of dollars worth of wooden poles to billboard companies each year and also used billboards to advertise his motel. Another member advertised his four fastfood restaurants. The paper also pointed out that several months before the push for tree-trimming permits began, billboard companies started donating free sign space throughout the state to the DOT for an anti-litter campaign, the donations eventually worth approximately $700,000. "I think their motives have to be questioned," the paper quoted Spencer Lee as saying.

Perhaps hardest-hitting was the Atlanta Constitution's April 17 editorial-the day before the scheduled vote-titled "Will DOT Board Spare Trees or Billboards?" The editor wrote: "It will be an act of extreme arrogance if the state transportation board votes Thursday to allow publicly owned trees to be sacrificed to improve the view of billboards. In recent months, thousands of Georgians with no financial stake in the issue have mailed letters to the DOT making clear their opposition to tree-cutting. The outdoor advertising industry ... has manufactured significantly less support."

According to DOT-released figures, the actual count was 1,771 people favoring the billboard side, a whopping 4,804 favoring trees.

The DOT board's arrogant attitude was not true of many DOT staffers. A recently retired DOT division director said in a newspaper interview that department professionals overwhelmingly opposed tree cutting because it would place one industry's interest over an objective evaluation of what is best for public highways. DOT officials were further angered, he said, by illegal tree poisoning and cutting.

As Bansley busied herself with communications, Spencer Lee aided by volunteers from two prestigious Atlanta law firms worked up a legal brief. Among other issues, they found out that the DOT doesn't have the legal authority to make a rule allowing tree cutting-only trimming-and that trees are public property and taking them without compensation is unconstitutional.

Lee was contacted by CBS News and guided a crew to locations on 1-75 where billboards had proliferated. "There's a bigger story here than we thought," the CBS people said.

Because of tremendous media coverage and the public outcry, the Georgia Attorney General's office became involved, meeting in executive session with the DOT board the day before the vote. Neither they nor the Attorney General's representative shared with the press or public what was discussed behind closed doors, but it became known that the next day DOT would "indefinitely" postpone voting on the tree-cutting rule.

Even assuming this was so-and it was-Ed Daugherty again canceled appointments to attend the meeting. So did Garden Clubber Peggy White, who arose at 5 a.m. to make the long journey. Spencer Lee drove 200 miles north from Albany to be there. The media was there as well, including CBS. Two days after the April 18 meeting, the story went nationwide on the CBS Evening News.

Speaking to a feature writer, Spencer Lee summed up the campaign for trees, -If the billboard industry had been successful in Georgia, we can be assured they would have pointed with pride to the Georgia experience, while trying to implement the same vegetative control' procedures in other states."

Lee thinks the billboard industry will be back to try again: "They ruled the day for months. I don't think they're ready to say, I quit.' "

But the people-armed with principle-are prepared to fight for their trees again and again if need be. AF
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; Georgia's citizens oppose law allowing trees to be sacrificed for billboard visibility
Author:Dawe, Nancy Anne
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Previous Article:The wall within.
Next Article:Target Green targets kids in trouble.

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