Originally created 11/09/99

Tree-trimming permits facing battle in court



ATLANTA -- Advertisers should not be allowed to cut trees blocking billboards along state highways at least until a lawsuit challenging the state's authority to issue such tree-trimming permits is resolved, former Georgia Attorney General Michael Bowers told the state Supreme Court on Monday.

"Trees take years to grow and minutes to cut," said Mr. Bowers, now a private lawyer representing the Garden Club of Georgia. "That's the key to this whole case."

The Garden Club filed a lawsuit last year after the General Assembly passed a law allowing owners of billboards along state highways to obtain permits to cut trees that are blocking their signs. In February, a Superior Court judge in Fulton County issued an injunction against the law until the case is resolved.

But Monday, a representative of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Georgia defended both the sign business and the law giving sign owners the right to make sure their ads are visible to the public.

David Flint said outdoor advertising gives businesses a cost-effective way to communicate with consumers, creates jobs and provides tax dollars. He said the 1998 law is an improvement over regulations issued by the state in 1994 -- and ruled unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court -- in that it requires permit fees that go toward a highway beautification fund and forces sign owners to pay for landscaping to compensate for the trees they remove.

"The General Assembly has struck the proper balance between property rights and free speech on the one hand and aesthetics on the other," Mr. Flint said.

But Mr. Bowers called the landscaping requirements worthless because they don't make the billboard companies improve the environment more than simply leaving the trees.

Much of Monday's hearing was taken up with whether Mr. Bowers should be allowed to represent the Garden Club in the case.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Ray Lerer said Mr. Bowers issued opinions and wrote letters on matters related to billboards several times before leaving office in 1997 to launch an unsuccessful bid for governor. Mr. Lerer said Mr. Bowers is breaking the state's "revolving-door" rule by involving himself in a case that he took positions on while in public office.

But Mark Trigg, another lawyer in Mr. Bowers' firm, said the attorney general's office can have as many as 16,000 active files on any given day, any of which could require that he take a position on an issue.

The Supreme Court is due to rule by the end of March on the legality of the injunction ordered by the Fulton court.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.