We get what we value

Politicians like to talk about values, as in “government ought to reflect the values of those it represents.”

Fair enough. As long as government doesn’t become a weapon for imposing the values of one group of people on everybody else, I have no problem with that concept.

However, if we accept the notion that laws are a reflection of the people who pass them, what does HB 179, passed into law by the Georgia Legislature and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011, say about the people of Georgia and what they value?

It says we value billboards. Lots and lots of billboards, everywhere you look.

Most visitors to our state already know that. Driving through Georgia, they’re struck by the number, size and sheer ugliness of our billboards, just as visitors to Colorado are struck by their beautiful mountains and visitors to New Jersey by the number of tollbooths. Besides, nothing says Southern family values like a 60-foot sign luring truckers into the next strip joint.

The beauty of HB 179 is that it expresses our love affair with billboards in legal language. It states:

“The General Assembly finds and declares that outdoor advertising provides a substantial service and benefit to Georgia and Georgia’s citizens as well as the traveling public. Therefore, the General Assembly declares it to be in the public interest that provisions be made for the visibility of outdoor advertising signs ….”

It should be pointed out that in their infinite wisdom, our legislators also wanted it known that because “the beautification of this state and the health of its environment are absolutely essential and equally as important to the traveling public, the General Assembly finds and declares that these needs must be balanced.”

Got that? Our state’s beauty and environment are just as important as billboards, but these things must be balanced. And what might this “balance” look like when written into law?

Well, if a publicly owned tree, growing on public property, might possibly interfere with the visibility of a privately owned billboard, state law gives the billboard owner the right to come onto public property and chop that tree down. Previous law exempted hardwoods with a diameter of more than eight inches and pines with a diameter of more than a foot, but under HB 179 those protections, like the trees, are gone.

That is how Georgia’s love for natural beauty and the environment is “balanced” with our love for billboards.

Unfortunately, that’s probably not the most telling reflection of Georgia priorities contained in HB 179. For that, you have to turn to a provision stating that “no beautification project in this state shall include the planting of trees in the right of way within 500 feet of an outdoor advertising sign” if it might obscure the right of Georgians to see that billboard in all its glory.

In effect, billboard owners have been given the power to dictate what happens on the publicly owned state right of way within 500 feet of their signs. Here in Atlanta, we’re now getting a real-life lesson in what that means. In Buckhead, a local beautification project has long called for the planting of hundreds of trees, with the hope of creating tree-lined corridors that would add considerably to its visual appeal as well as offer welcome shade.

But there are billboards at critical points along those corridors, billboards that make such plantings illegal under state law. The Atlanta City Council this week passed a resolution in hopes of winning an exemption, but HB 179 provides no such mechanism.

What we value is what we get, so we get billboards.

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