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"The citizens of north Fulton do not want to drive home to billboards," insists R.J. Kurey, a self-described watchdog of north Fulton government who also is mobilizing a campaign against SB 59. "The area north of I-285 on Ga. 400 has been well preserved with trees and it is a very nice, pleasurable drive home," says Kurey, founder of www.friendsofalpharetta .com, a website that monitors Alpharetta city government.
Not surprisingly, northside billboard opponents Litton and Kurey have found allies in some of the state's environmental groups, such as the Garden Club of Georgia. The group, which boosts a membership of 16,000, has emerged as one of the most powerful environmental lobbying groups in the state.
"The Garden Club of Georgia is very much concerned about this senate bill," says Joan Brown, co-chairman of the group, who refers to the signs as a "visual pollution" in the area. "There's a safety factor here: Allowing these signs to run every six seconds poses a tremendous danger and distraction level.
In foggy conditions, these ongoing messages are very distracting to motorists and we definitely oppose [SB-59]."
Club co-chairman Rachel Fowler says the billboard industry has gained its clout largely through effective lobbying of state lawmakers and recommends opponents follow suit.
"We've tried to mobilize our club by getting members to talk to their representatives and senators," Fowler says.
"The best thing citizens can do to [fight billboard placement] is send letters to their senators and write and call local newspapers. Regardless of what some of the public thinks, the senators and representatives do pay attention to their own constituents. We try to tell our ladies to be sure and tell them that they are constituents because, after all, they are the ones who put them in office and they want to do what they can to please as many of them as they can."
While the billboard industry may have the money to support its lobbying goals, Fowler says her group has power in numbers. "Our membership is 16,000, but you can multiply me by four because I can control four votes at anytime," she points out.
In fact, public apathy may have played a role in helping the billboard industry gain power, she says. "A lot of people really didn't realize what the proliferation of so many billboards in the area was going to mean."
In addition, Fowler theorizes that the state Department of Transportation's permissive attitude toward billboard companies has contributed to the problem over the last decade. "Even though we work very well with the DOT, they have been somewhat lax in granting and checking [sign] permits."
Although former DOT commis-sioner Tom Moreland was protective of trees along state and federal highways, she says, his successor Wayne Shackleford -- who served for most of the '90s -- allowed trees to be cut away so billboards could be more easily read. "Which is where we got involved," Fowler notes.
While the fight continues on the state level, northside communities are grappling with how to handle the ever-encroaching billboard industry in their particular area.
The billboard companies "certainly want to get the biggest bang for their buck and the market in north Fulton area is very affluent," says Alpharetta councilwoman Debbie Gibson.
"I hope that the Senate decides that there's no reason to allow billboard companies to have any more leeway than they already have in the state," Gibson says. The citizens have spoken on more than one occasion that they consider this visual pollution and a distraction for drivers."
In addition to its current moratorium, the city is looking to strengthen its sign ordinance in the face of legal challenges from billboard companies seeking a foothold in the area.
Roswell saw its own billboard moratorium struck down in late April by a judge on the grounds that it didn't allow for the same public notice and hearing requirements that apply to zoning applications. The city had enacted the moratorium in 1999 after its 20-year-old sign ordinance was thrown out after a judge determined it effectively banned political signs.
The ruling left the city with no sign ordinance in place for nearly a month as it prepared a replacement. As a result, Roswell saw nine new billboards go up, prompting anti-billboard demonstrations and a grassroots boycott campaign that scared away several potential advertisers, including then-state Senate candidate John Mitnick.
Last year, a war of words played out between Roswell Mayor Jere Wood and some of the area's largest billboard companies for months. Wood was threatened with a lawsuit after he sent a letter to seven firms that leased billboards in Roswell suggesting they find another means of advertising; in other words, the billboards were not a welcome in the community.
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