Environment Picture

Groups target legislation gutting key Michigan billboard restrictions

Former governor, attorney general join the fight
Legislation killing popular billboard restrictions was in the crosshairs of Michigan Environmental Council and member group Scenic Michigan this summer.

At press time, it was unclear whether the measure, which passed the Senate in June, would survive a House vote or whether Gov. Jennifer Granholm would commit to veto it if it reached her desk.

“In Michigan, we have established a cap on billboards,” said Abby Dart of Scenic Michigan. “This legislation, Senate Bill 1370, would pry open that cap. It would allow the expansion and digitalization of thousands of billboards that are supposed to have been removed at the end of their useful life.”

A campaign to kill, or extensively amend the legislation, gained favorable editorials in numerous newspapers and public expressions of support from former Gov. William Milliken, former Attorney General Frank Kelley and Leon Stille, the former state senator who sponsored the 1999 billboard restriction legislation that the proposed law would undercut.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation in 2006 establishing a cap on billboards, saying at the time that “Michigan is blessed with beautiful scenery—fields and forests, lakes, streams and hills” and that the 2006 cap would “ensure we don’t lose that beauty in a mountain of roadside advertisements.”

“We expect the governor to be consistent in her commitment to helping keep Michigan free from the clutter of excessive commercial advertising,” said Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. “But we hope that the House of Representatives sees this legislation for what it is, and kills it before it gets any farther.”

SB 1370 was apparently written on behalf of one politically connected Saginaw billboard owner who wanted to bring his illegal billboard into compliance. But statewide damage would be done through provisions that:
  • Reverse hard fought 1999 spacing requirements for billboards. The 1,000-foot minimum space between signs on federal highways would be shortened to 500 feet. The 500-foot spacing minimum on primary highways would be reduced to 300 feet.
  • Would allow holders of on-premise signs to convert their permits to off-premise signs; paving the way for relocation and clustering of billboards all across the state.
  • Remove the prohibition on upgrading of “grandfathered” billboards that don’t comply with the newer laws—essentially removing them from the planned obsolescence that a 1999 law created, and paving the way for making them bigger and electronically digitized.
  • Allow an unlimited number of small billboards for religious organizations and service clubs.
Stille, the sponsor of the 1999 billboard legislation informally dubbed the “Stille Bill,” said the pending legislation should not be allowed to reverse the hard-fought billboard reduction won almost a decade ago.

“The intent of my 1999 legislation was clearly that nonconforming billboards be phased out,” Stille said. “If the pending legislation gives those signs permanent status, it is a reversal of that law and a significant change in policy. I would certainly not be supportive of that change.”

Former Gov. Milliken agreed in an opinion column published in the Detroit Free Press in July: “Michigan’s spectacular vistas and natural beauty are among its most attractive and compelling assets. Protecting them from the billboard industry’s crass assaults should be foremost in the minds of the people’s representatives when they vote on this issue.”
-Michigan Environmental Council
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