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House shreds billboard bill

March 28, 1996
By: Cristina Gomez
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The drive to lead cities like Columbia to regulate billboards along the highways has been defeated by the Missouri House.

"It would have allowed the city to control billboards on federal highways," said Karl Kruse, a member of the Columbia City Council. "We want very much to do it."

If the bill had passed, Columbia could have seen fewer numbers of billboards.

"Our current law in Columbia is more restrictive than Missouri law and we would try to enforce it," said Karl Kruse. He is also executive director of Scenic Missouri, an organization that supports the bill.

The main argument that opponents raised against the bill were economical because local governments tend to restrict billboards.

Rep. Nancy Farmer, D-St. Louis, said the outdoor advertising industry does not want to deal with each local government about regulations. She is sponsoring the bill.

Rep. Don Lograsso, R-Blue Springs, who opposes the bill, said it would be "improper control" over private business.

"Private business are regulated all the time, why should billboards be an exception to the rule?" asked Kruse. He also added that the state has the right "to ban billboards right now, if they want to."

The Missouri Outdoor Advertising Organization has been lobbying against the bill. Bill May, attorney for the organization, said no local government has the right to completely ban a business as could happen to billboards.

"There are folks out there that have invested millions and millions of dollars in an industry (outdoor advertising) and now they want to cut it," said Lograsso.

Kruse said that according to the Department of Economic Development only 600 people are employed in the industry.

May said this figures don't take into account the impact of billboards on all the people who supply them with materials, such as wood or paint, and on the businesses that are advertised.

According to May, if the bill were passed it would have a negative effect on tourism, especially because Missouri is a state people travel across. He said Missouri's tourism has grown compared to the surrounding states that have more restrictive laws on billboards.

He gave the example of Meramec Caverns in Sullivan. The owner, Les Turelli, made a survey that showed that 80% of the visitors had seen it advertised on billboards.

Turelli said that in Ohio, where billboards had been banned, business had decreased. According to him, Seneca Caverns in Ohio had seen business decrease by 60 percent.

Scenic Missouri insists that billboards have a bad impact on tourism. According to them, states that have banned billboards, such as Vermont or Hawaii, are the ones that get more tourism.

Both Columbia representatives cosponsored the bill and support local regulation over billboards. Rep. Tim Harlan, D-Columbia, said it is better having people from Columbia deciding over Columbia, and not people from Jefferson City.

Rep. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, said he supported the bill "in order to preserve the national beauty of the state."

"We have three times as many billboards per mile as in eight surrounding states," said Kruse, and he compared riding across Missouri as looking at the yellow pages.

May said billboards wouldn't affect scenic landscapes because can only be erected on property regarded as commercial or industrial or where other commercial activities are held.

According to Kruse, Missouri is the only state in the country that does not allow local control. Four states have even banned billboards, he said.

"That does not make any difference to me," said Lograsso, and added that if the other 49 states are wrong, Missouri shouldn't follow.