Thursday, February 18, 2016

Billboard Tuna: Lessons in Private Property Rights

"I think that I shall never see, a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I'll never see a tree at all." -- Ogden Nash, Song of the Open Road, 1933
"A tree is a tree - how many more do you need to look at." -- Ronald Reagan, California Governor
After the close of WWII the nation went wild in celebration and with a free wheeling spirit that made everyone want to break out of their former lives for the open road. The coldwater flats of the city were no longer better places to live than the Victorian Era farm houses of the Mid-west. People had migrated into the city for the industrial jobs created since the mechanization of all manufacturing processes. Farming itself was becoming more mechanized at the same time.

During the 1920s the first phase of the National Highway system linking state capitals and major cities along the way was built of two narrow lanes of concrete. For the first time ordinary citizens could move about freely by automobile without having to brave the muddy and rocky roads.

Automobile travel steadily increased as ordinary workers could afford to buy a car and be free to move about at will. The introduction of credit to purchase such expensive machines further increased the magnitude of the motoring public.

And what happened? Roadside businesses sprung up along the way to provide food, fuel and lodging to the burgeoning volume of traffic on the highways. First it was signs to inform the traveler that travel services were just ahead. Then as local competition grew, the signs became bigger, more frequent and much further ahead of the stop.

It was no great leap of ingenuity when the first commercial billboard advertising company came into being to fill that particular niche of telling drivers that somewhere, anywhere there was a business that would fulfill their every need. And of course that first outdoor advertising enterprise was not alone for long. All too soon the landscape was awash with huge flat panels hawking everything from chewing gum and cigarettes to laundry soap and funeral services.
The prevalence of billboards and their longevity and reuse prompted a myriad of variations to the "Billboard Song" that so many people seem to know. Even my father knew, from somewhere, this particular version.
I was driving down the road one dark and dreary day.
I came upon a billboard, much to my dismay,
The sign was torn and tattered from the rainy night before.
The wind and rain had done its job and this is what I saw.
Smoke Coca-Cola cigarettes. Drink Wrigley Spearmint beer.
Ken-L-Ration Dog Food makes your complexion clear.
Simonize your baby with a Hershey candy bar
And Texaco the beauty cream is used by all the stars.
By the 1970s a backlash against the free-for-all attitude of advertisers prompted a Federal abatement program operated through the USDOT to limit and remove excessive numbers of advertising panels from the nations highways. With their hands on the highway trust fund money, the USDOT could require that states comply with the Highway Beautification efforts that conservationists long wanted. Specific limits to the linear spacing, numbers of panels, size and proximity to the roadway were promulgated. Roadway type was also rolled into the formulas. While new permits were limited, so was the number of existing ones. Where too many signs clogged the view of the landscape, they had to come down.

Not too surprisingly, the concept of property rights and of the tasking of personal property by the government became an issue. Due process must be followed in order for the taking to be legitimate. Compensation for the loss of use must be paid. Not unlike the taking of the family farmhouse and barn for the Interstate highway Right-of-Way, tax dollars had to be spent to buy out their interest in the signs. Estimated revenue losses per sign were calculated and settled upon as the signs were cut down. Sometimes the prorated estimated losses totaled to upwards of $10,000 per sign. And the Federal Government bought that Tuna. They redistributed the wealth to the tune of tens of millions of dollars: a small sum in Federal Government terms.

If that were the end of the story, there would be no point to be made. However, as with all tides, political tides turn too. By the mid-1980s that tide had turned. Advertising was no longer insidious and evil. No longer was it a blight on the landscape, at least not to the new government that ruled the highways and the byways of the nation. Ronald Reagan was President and he was pro-business.

Soon the landscape was dotted with the foundations of the next generation crop of billboards to inform motorists of the most essential things. At 1000 foot intervals, the masts would carry twin panels each. Like dandelions on a summer breeze the signs proliferated. These were the new high-tech steel masts complete with florescent lighting to make sure they stood out against the landscape in all type of conditions. Outdoor advertising moguls could order masts, booms and lighting from the same companies that supply the DOTs of the nation with highway masts, booms and lighting for the highway directional signs.

In the end, today there are many more roadside billboards than ever before. It seems that all one needs is a few sympathetic members of congress to get what one wants.

A similar scheme has been hatched to pay land owners for the loss of the potential profits derived from land development due to environmental controls. It seems that that swamp land you grandfather bought from that traveling salesman has some value after all. While I worked at the Planning Commission in Athens, Georgia in the mid 1980s, there was a constant battle between the private property rights advocates and the planners who wanted to use an intelligent design to shape the landscape.

The City and County passed Zoning Ordinances and developed a Master Plan to encourage developers to develop land in a sensible way that would minimize the need for new infrastructure, schools, police and fire protection. On the other side, the developers wanted to maximize the number of houses or residential units that could be constructed on a parcel of land. When the Planners recommended a lower limit to the size of the subdivision or apartment complex, the developers screamed that the Commission was "taking" their property and they must be compensated for the losses.

So the scheme became this: A developer would make a deal with a land owner to purchase his land for a price contingent upon the size of the development. If the overly ambitious plan was scaled back by the Commission, the land owner had grounds for his claim of damages.

The other variant of the scheme was to purchase land that had highly restrictive zoning limits and apply to have it changed citing the higher investment return as the motivation. When the higher use was denied, the applicant claimed that their property rights were being infringed upon and compensation was warranted.

At about the same time period, in Tennessee, a family owned cemetery business developed an ingenious scheme that turned ones final resting place into a scheme of buying and selling. As the available land in their cemetery became scarce, they needed additional space to continue selling plots. Without additional acreage available for sale, they removed the grave markers from the oldest sections and plowed the earth and reseeded it. With new section markers, everything was ready for expansion.

The oldest sections had graves dating back to the Civil War and earlier. No one had been coming to visit those graves in a very long time. Therefore, there was little risk in selling the plots a second time. First they would sell the plot, then they would fill it, sometimes years apart in time. After all, many funeral directors convince their customers to "be prepared" and have everything planned and laid out before they themselves need to be laid out.

When the time came to open the ground, they used a backhoe to dig right through the old caskets that had been rotting in the ground for over a hundred years. Most of the people working at the cemetery were family. They wouldn't tell. But everyone working there knew what was going on. They were making money. Wages were paid. Grave sites were being made available to people who needed a space. The dead did not complain much.

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Author's Note: The book cover images in the side margins of this blog are my own publications of eBooks available at both Amazon and B&N. Please take a moment and go to the sites and read about them. Then if you like it, buy one or two.

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