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Scenic Wisconsin

An Affiliate of Scenic America

Current Issues

Rich Eggleston: Billboards shouldn't be forever

Adams Outdoor Advertising has fought in court over billboards, including this one along Aberg Avenue on Madison's North Side.

FITCHBURG — If you have an eye sore you go to an ophthalmologist, unless your eyesore is a billboard. Then, if you’re Adams Outdoor Advertising Co., you go to a lawyer.

Adams’ lawyers’ efforts to bend the law to their will are not always successful, but they keep trying. In February, Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess rejected Adams’ claim that partly obstructing the view of one of its billboards with an overpass on Madison’s busy Beltline in Fitchburg was not an unlawful taking of private property, as Adams had contended.

Adams avoided lawsuits when it settled longstanding disputes with the city of Madison in 2011, but the settlements came at a cost to the public. While Adams agreed to remove two eyesores — one at Union Corners and the other at the Villager Shopping Center on the South Side — it was given the right to apply for five new billboards, as though Madison’s ban on new billboards didn’t exist. This is an example of how valuable billboards are — to the billboard companies.

Adams wanted to preserve that billboard infrastructure despite opposition by pesky neighbors, so it went to court to challenge the County Board’s 18-16 vote, taken on April 7, against renewing a lease for a billboard on county land near the Dane County Regional Airport.

The real question isn’t the legal technicality on which Adams wants to hang its hat, or its convoluted view of its rights. It’s whether signing a billboard lease is like entering into a marriage contract “until death do us part.” According to the law unto Adams, once you’ve signed that lease, there may be no such thing as a divorce.

In fact, we’ve always had the right to view the natural landscape, and billboard companies have never had the right to impose their message between you and that natural landscape.

It all brings to mind the doggerel penned by Ogden Nash (with apologies to Joyce Kilmer):

“I think that I shall never see/a billboard lovely as a tree./Perhaps, unless the billboards fall/I’ll never see a tree at all.”

Far-fetched? Not in Wisconsin, where state law gives billboard companies the right to cut trees on public property if they interfere with passing motorists’ view of a billboard.

Eggleston, of Fitchburg, is a member of the board of directors of Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin.

A Small Band of Determined Citizens Can Make a Big Change

Digital Billboards - Coming In Great Numbers - Soon

It's time to be prepared for an onslaught of lobbyists and executives that will soon arrive in our communities across Wisconsin. They will meet with your elected representatives and attempt to negotiate "deals"to convert your traditional billboards into digital. They will frequently attempt to rush what appear to be minor ordinance changes through the process without time for citizen input or for the the officials to start asking questions. These tactics can result in the destruction of local sign codes. Be prepared for them.

Learn about Digital Billboards by going here to our Educational Page and be sure to take action by e-mailing your representatives.

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CSW is dedicated to scenic conservation in our state. We are actively engaged in supporting legislation to control billboards. This means fighting the status quo and it is not a simple undertaking. We can use your help and if you would like a membership, please visit our membership page by clicking here.