Originally created 02/07/98

Bill allows trimming of trees blocking ads



ATLANTA -- The Georgia Senate approved a bill Friday that would allow businesses, for a fee, to trim publicly owned trees that obscure their outdoor advertising along state roads.

Alternately billed a chain-saw massacre by opponents and a carefully balanced compromise by supporters, the bill by state Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, passed the Senate unanimously.

It seeks to address a 3-year-old court ruling.

A 1995 state Supreme Court decision says trees on state rights of way cannot be trimmed for better display of a private company's billboard advertisement.

It is illegal to allow companies to cut down public trees to favor private business, the court said.

For several years, garden clubs and environmental groups have been at odds with outdoor advertisers who want the right to cut down or trim brush and trees around billboards.

The state cut down trees along Georgia highways until the 1970s, when then-Gov. Jimmy Carter initiated a highway landscaping program.

Mr. Thompson's bill would allow businesses to apply for permits to remove vegetation hiding or partially blocking a billboard advertisement.

"This is as good of a compromise on this issue as legislators can work out. Neither side can claim victory. Both sides have given ground," said state Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who helped Mr. Thompson craft the bill.

Sierra Club of Georgia lobbyist Neill Herring said the legislation is better than giving business a clear shot at leveling trees along highways with no regulation.

"It is a compromise only in the sense that the environment was going to be hurt anyway, but this imposes limits on the damage," Mr. Herring said.

The bill requires a business wanting to trim trees or brush to pay up to $350 to apply to the state Department of Transportation to cut.

The company also must submit a landscaping plan for approval before a permit is issued. The money will go toward supplementing existing highway beautification funds.

An estimated $500,000 could be raised in the first year, Mr. Thompson said. The measure now goes to the state House for consideration.