Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) WASHINGTON Citing small-business survival and property rights, Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri proposes an overhaul of federal regulations that could mean more signs along U.S. highways.
"Simply put, small business in rural communities cannot survive under current laws governing outdoor advertising," Graves said.
Environmental groups respond that changing the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 could result in new billboards overwhelming America's scenic rural highways. And, they note, the number of billboards has actually increased since the law went into effect, because of lax enforcement.
The law governs signage on scenic and rural highways that receive federal funding, and it requires the removal of billboards that do not meet standards.
At a hearing of his Small Business Subcommittee on Rural Enterprises, Agriculture and Technology, Graves said: "The law failed to take into account the effect on small business, particularly in rural areas that rely heavily on billboard advertising."
Several witnesses told Graves, the subcommittee chairman, that small businesses in rural areas depended on billboards as an efficient, effective form of advertising. There are few viable substitutes for the types of businesses, such as restaurants and motels, that generally use billboards, the witnesses said.
About 82 percent of small businesses would lose sales, with an average loss of 18 percent, if they did not have access to billboards, said Charles Taylor, a marketing professor at Villanova University. Taylor said the Outdoor Advertising Association of America sponsored his research.
Sarah Kothe, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in Salisbury, Mo., was forced to take her roadside sign down because, although smaller than a billboard, it did not conform to the law.
"This time last year I had three or four confirmed reservations a month," Kothe said at the May 15 hearing. "Today I don't have any."
Small-business owners like Kothe could benefit from informational sign programs that many states offer, said Meg Maguire, the president of Scenic America, an environmental group. Such signs are much smaller than billboards.
Maguire urged Graves to consider a change to the law that would encourage states to offer such sign programs, especially with tourism growing as a part of the national economy.
"Let's look at good signage for rural America," said Maguire, who was the only witness before the subcommittee not affiliated with or a beneficiary of billboard advertising. "There are landscape-friendly alternatives to billboard advertising."
Graves said he would take action to change the law later this year. He said he hoped to find common ground with those who promoted billboard regulation.
The Highway Beautification Act was a project of Lady Bird Johnson in her tenure as first lady and is a significant legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.
According to the Environmental Working Group, there are at least 120,000 more billboards today than there were in 1965, when the law went into effect, and between 5,000 and 15,000 more are built annually.
Four states with tourism-based economies have banned billboards, and two other states have banned construction of new billboards. In Missouri in 2000, a voter referendum that would have banned the construction of new billboards was narrowly defeated, garnering 49 percent of the vote.
Missouri has the sixth-largest number of billboards on federally funded highways in the country, according to Scenic America. About 26 percent of Missouri's billboards do not conform to the law's standards, according to the group.
Besides the issue of small-business viability, Graves said he thought excessive billboard regulation was an infringement of property rights.
"People should have the right to do what they want with their property if it doesn't bother anyone else," Graves said.
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