Cities resist signs of the times

For years, outdoor advertisers have coveted north Fulton County’s upscale suburbs, where consumers tend to have lots of money but not many billboards telling them how to spend it.

It’s not that the advertisers haven’t tried. They have applied repeatedly for permitting. But the requests were usually rejected out of hand, catapulting the cases into court.

The latest incarnation in that ongoing saga came last week as the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that four north Fulton cities — Milton, Johns Creek, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta — must permit what critics call “visible pollution on a stick.”

“Billboards are not welcome in north Fulton,” said Roswell Mayor Jere Wood, who has fought the companies since the 1990s and is something of a spiritual leader of the region’s anti-billboard movement. “We kick their ass every chance we get.”

Wood was quick to explain why he was so strident against the oversized placards: “They’re ugly. They’re ugly. They’re like a blemish on your face. They need Clearasil.”

The latest court ruling goes back to 2003 and involves 50 to 70 billboard applications; the two sides still can’t agree on how many are at stake. But north Fulton residents fear the recent ruling will change the character of their carefully coiffed communities. Others worry about the next generation of billboards coming, the new electronic boards, akin to monster TVs on poles that change images every few seconds.

“I think it’ll be a drastic change for these communities to keep an environmentally friendly atmosphere; we feel really done in,” said Sandy Springs resident Joan Brown, a self-described “little grandmother” and Garden Club of Georgia activist who has fought billboard companies for years. “They are very arrogant and have the money to spend.”

Adam Webb, a lawyer who earns a good living helping put billboards where they are often unwanted, smiles at such statements.

“Nothing gets people stirred up like adult stores, strip clubs and billboards; they’re one, two, three,” said Webb, sitting in his cluttered office filled with piles of documents from the dozens of lawsuits he has filed across the country.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said, adding that he and sign company operators are not arrogant. They are just fighting for the First Amendment and capitalism.

“It’s a misperception that they’ll wreck an area,” Webb said.

Look at West Paces Ferry Road, he said, one of Atlanta’s premier residential stretches that includes the governor’s mansion.

“There are billboards at one end, by I-75, and on the other end at Peachtree Road. They haven’t hurt its reputation. During the 1990s in Roswell, they said the world will come to an end if billboards went up. They did. But the city has not slide into a slum.”

And, he noted with a grin, Roswell Mayor Wood has used a billboard to advertise his campaign. He even provided a photo as proof.

The fierce battle waged by the north Fulton communities is typical, said David Flint, the lawyer for two of the four billboard companies in the suit. (Webb had the other two.) “Neighborhoods with great affluence want to exert the most control,” Flint said.

The current suit includes applications for billboards along Ga. 9, Ga. 400, Roswell Road and other thoroughfares. Most are for the industry standard, 14-by-48 feet boards.

Milton Mayor Joe Lockwood said billboards will hurt aesthetics in the still-rustic city. But continuing to fight would waste tax money, he added. So city officials will sit down with the companies to see how many billboards they really want to erect.

Billboard companies frequently blanket cities and counties with applications, said Laurel Henderson, an attorney who represented the cities in the suit. “They’ll ask for 15 to 20 when they really want six,” she said.

The companies started applying for permits in 2003 and sued after Fulton County turned them down. The county once had zoning jurisdiction over the area before Sandy Springs incorporated in 2005 and Milton and Johns Creek in 2006. Also, Alpharetta annexed some land that had applications pending.

While the suits were pending, the state Supreme Court ruled, in a separate case, that Fulton’s sign ordinance violated the First Amendment. In that case, the court ruled the county was prohibiting signs based on their content.

Lawyers said courts increasingly are ruling commercial speech should be as protected as non-commercial speech. Once government bodies start regulating content on signs, judges start having problems.

“The First Amendment is a powerful thing, especially in Georgia,” said Henderson, who often represents municipalities in billboard suits. “The courts have given [billboard companies] more protection than in other states.”

She said the sign ordinances in the north Fulton communities have been rewritten to be “content neutral,” not differentiating between types of speech. Cities can regulate the size of billboards and issues like the set-back from roads or height. They also can regulate for aesthetics or traffic safety, but lawyers say those issues are wide open for interpretation.

Proponents say billboards are the most efficient way for “mom-and-pop” businesses to turn passersby into customers.

Jim Wade, owner of one of the billboard companies in the suit, said he got lost last week while looking for an auto repair shop in Alpharetta because the city is stringent about limiting the size of directional signs.

Webb said he represented a Gwinnett County furniture store that lost 30 percent of its business after a car crashed into its billboard, knocking it down.

But Henderson, who often battles Webb in court, said she conducted surveys for lawsuits in Sandy Springs, Newnan and Statesboro and found that the signs usually plug national corporations, not “mom and pops.”

The north Fulton lawsuit is more a battle from the past, anyway, she said. The fight is now over electronic billboards. Outdoor advertising companies increasingly want to turn existing billboards electric, she said, because they generate more revenue.

Jay Bockisch, a Johns Creek Community Association member, figures the billboard companies in the recent suit want to do exactly that. “I imagine they’re angling for a couple LED signs instead of all the applications they put in,” he said.

Residents will keep an eye on the process, said Bockisch, who contends “one (sign) is too many for our city.”

An idea that may gain some traction, he said, is for residents to write companies advertising on the new billboards and express their displeasure that they are doing so.

Roswell’s mayor tried the same tack a decade ago but was ordered by the court to stop.

“But you can’t stop a local citizen from writing letters saying we’re not happy,” said Bockisch.

The battle never ends.