For more than 40 years, the Dallas City Council has played patsy to the billboard industry. Whenever that small dog barked, the Council would jump.
The result is a rash of ugly strips that litter our highways and spoil our skyline. Billboards have made Dallas-which, let’s face it, was no raving beauty to begin with-one of the ugliest cities in America.
Now we have a City Council with the intelligence and gumption to correct the timidity of its pusillanimous predecessors. The whole city should stand up and cheer them on. If a complete and total billboard ban were put to a popular referendum, Dallas citizens probably would vote 4-1 for total elimination, like Alaska did in 1998. Given a choice, people will vote for beauty over blight.
The proposed ordinance doesn’t go as far as Alaska’s, and for legal reasons it probably can’t. The City Council will be asked only to ban new construction, and to enforce that ban with stiff penalties and strict enforcement.
But a ban on new construction will work. In Texas 114 cities have already banned new billboards. Houston (Houston!) imposed its ban in 1980 (1980!). The natural deterioration of billboards over the last 19 years, at a rate of 2 to 3 percent a year, has reduced the number in Houston from 10,000 to 5,000. That’s still too many to my mind, but the point is the ban has worked in reducing billboards.
Predictably, the billboard industry is dodging and weaving. Its counter-proposal is called “cap and replace.” The industry says it will dismantle two billboards for every new one it is allowed to construct. The proposal’s a smokescreen: Old wooden billboards are torn down every week to make way for new, huge steel billboards. The industry’s counteroffer would make billboards bigger and Dallas uglier.
In fact, every argument the industry’ makes is laughable. For years it contended that any ordinance was an assault on private property. The truth is just the opposite: Every billboard is a private assault on the public sensibility-on the roadways the public has built. Ardent private property champion William F. Buckley, Jr. got it right when he wrote, “Billboards are acts of aggression against which the public is entitled, as a matter of privacy, to be protected.” A radio can be turned off; a magazine can be closed and tossed on the coffee table. Billboard advertising assails the senses-with no relief.
But… but… but, stammers the industry, a ban would throw a lot of people out of work. “How many people would it throw out of work?” we asked. No answer. “Okay, exactly how many people work in the billboard business in Dallas?” we asked. No answer. Dallas has the lowest unemployment rate in its history. If 30 or 40 people are going to rind new jobs (and that’s the best estimate we can come up with), now’s a great time for diem to do it.
Past members of the Dallas City Council should hang their heads in shame. Ninety percent of the billboards now standing should never have been allowed to be built. Here’s a big Thumbs Up to the present Council for taking on these characters-and for taking their ugly contraptions off our streets.