Under siege from signs 

Billboard battle flares again in Topside as neighbors fight new state bill

Signs of North Atlanta's rapid growth are popping up everywhere -- literally. The billboard industry has, for years, maintained a strong grip on Georgia and, in particular, metro Atlanta.

In the city's affluent northern suburbs, where residents' buying power draws shopping center developers, grocery chains and outdoor advertisers alike, many Topsiders -- and the cities where they live -- feel as if they are under siege from billboards.

The latest evidence that the billboard industry's grip may be tightening comes in the form of state Senate Bill 59, which seeks to ease some of the state's complex sign restrictions. Having recently cleared the Senate Transportation Committee, SB 59 is now on its way to the Senate floor.

Coincidentally, Alpharetta renewed its 18-month-old moratorium on billboards earlier this month, refusing to accept applications to permit any more signs before May 1.

The temporary prohibition, directed at signs larger than 128 square feet or more than 12 feet in height, is designed to give the city's community development department time to evaluate the impact of billboards on the community, especially in terms of public safety and property values.

One reason for the recent clashes between communities and advertisers can be attributed to the phenomenal growth of the billboard industry itself. Over the past 25 years, outdoor advertising has grown nationally from a $200-million-a-year industry to earn more than $4.8 billion in revenues per year. Georgia billboards take in $300 million a year, about 16 percent of the total national gross.

Signs line the interstate network in Georgia and have spread increasingly to state routes, major streets and former small-town roads and intersections.

Community resistance also has grown in reaction to recent technological advances that serve to put billboards more in drivers' faces than ever before. One of the provisions of SB 59 would allow tri-panel billboards, which flash three separate ads in constant rotation, to change their messages more frequently -- every six seconds instead of every 10 seconds, as current law provides.

Under the new proposal, the signs also could be wedged in nearly twice as tightly along roadways as is now allowed. Currently, the signs must be at least 5,000 feet -- nearly a mile -- apart; SB 59 would allow them within 2,600 feet of each other so motorists could see two of the signs per mile.

"Technology is going to allow [billboard com-panies] to provide as many ads as they want. They won't be restricted to three ads in the future," says Jay Litton, a Roswell resident who is helping organize a community letter-writing campaign against SB 59.

Even the wording of SB 59 has been subtly changed to play down the visual blight the signs represent, Litton says; tri-panel signs are redubbed "moveable message boards" in the bill.

"In this age of concern about driver safety and distractions as we drive down these highways, allowing these billboards to flash at us almost twice as much, twice as fast at interchanges when we're entering and exiting onto these roads, just seems to go against what the Legislature should be doing for us, which is protecting the citizens where safety issues are in their control," Litton says.

Litton and fellow Topsider Kent Igleheart are co-founders of historicroswell.org, a website dedicated to preserving and protecting the city of Roswell. A sales manager for an information technology firm, Litton predicts billboards are only the first of several upcoming issues that will threaten the tranquility and quality of life in Atlanta's northern suburbs.

"There is a definite passion that billboards generate in north Fulton," observes state Sen. Rusty Paul (R-Roswell), a Transportation Committee member who voted against SB 59. "The other members of the Transportation Committee and many members of the Senate have been awakened to that passion over the past two weeks as the folks of Alpharetta and Roswell have flooded the Capitol with e-mails and letters."

But critics of the bill were hardly surprised see it fly through the Transportation Com- mittee, where its author, Sen. Don Cheeks (D-Augusta), holds the vice-chairman's seat. Cheeks has been criticized in the past for conflicts of interest in supporting billboard-friendly legislation while he owned several billboards. He reportedly now only leases land to a billboard company, a relationship that still has provoked calls for ethics reform. Cheeks could not be reached for comment.

However, despite the local opposition to SB 59, Paul says he believes the bill will indeed pass the Senate, but not without a fight.

"The problem is that [north Fulton] is where the passion has been localized, but it's beginning to get out a little bit around the rest of the state," continues Paul, adding that north Fulton residents have become one of the most protective and vocal groups in the state when it comes to preserving quality of life in their communities.

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