Charlie Mitchell, Editor
The city and Adams have been battling in court over the city’s sign ordinances for decades, with the newly decided federal lawsuit filed in 2017. Adams owns and operates many billboards in Wisconsin, including about 90 in Madison.
Adams’federal lawsuit began as a sweeping First Amendment challenge to the city’s sign ordinance under a legal standard set in a previous U.S. Supreme Court case involving another municipality. It also challenged the city’s distinction between on- and off-premises signs as well as regulation of digital signs.
In April 2017, Adams submitted 26 applications to the city seeking to modify or replace existing billboards, including raising the height of structures and installing digital sign faces. In June 2017, then-city zoning administrator Matthew Tucker denied 25 of the 26 permits, citing ordinance provisions the proposed modifications would violate. The next month, Adams filed the lawsuit in federal court.
In April 2020, a federal judge dismissed the challenge, saying there’s no constitutional problem with Madison’s sign ordinance. ‘Whether the Capitol Square should look like Times Square is a decision that Madison city government is entitled to make,’ U.S. District Judge James Peterson said at the time.
Adams appealed that decision.
Now, on Jan. 4, in a 16-page decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, upheld the federal district court’s dismissal of Adams’ claims.
‘The city is pleased with this outcome,” Assistant City Attorney Lara Mainella said. “It supports and reinforces our understanding of the law. The city has always been careful to enact and enforce its sign regulations in a way that honors the First Amendment speech rights of those who wish to display signs in our city…'”
— Dean Mosiman, Wisconsin State Journal, Photo: John Hart, Wisconsin State Journal
SW Editor’s Note: Chief Judge Diana Sykes applied the US Supreme Court’s decision in City of Austin v. Reagan Advertising to reject Adams Outdoor Advertising’s lawsuit. In her opinion, justice Sykes stated, “City of Austin resolves this case. Billboards by their very nature can be perceived as an aesthetic harm. Likewise, the connection between billboards and traffic safety is too obvious to require empirical proof.” CM
Advancing and defending the principles of Scenic Wisconsin made 2022 a busy year. From efforts to end billboard blight to preserving scenic byways, increasing agricultural tourism and barn preservation, Scenic Wisconsin actively engaged with state and local decisionmakers and the public.
Supreme Court decision on Reagan v. Austin: A major victory for scenery!
The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Reagan Advertising v. City of Austin on November 10, 2021, a case that considers whether billboard restrictions violate First Amendment rights. Reagan argued that regulating signs based on whether they are off-premises of the product advertised on them violates the right to free speech. At stake is whether federal and state governments will continue to have the right to regulate outdoor advertising signs, commonly known as billboards, along highways in this country. The justices expressed concerns about the implications of the case on the national landscape, the legacy of the Highway Beautification Act and the costs of overturning long-standing scenic laws.
In August, Scenic Wisconsin joined other scenic-oriented state organizations in signing an amicus curiae brief in support of the City of Austin. In October, we issued a strongly-worded bulletin in favor of Austin, to encourage people and organizations in Wisconsin to join the fray against Reagan. Attached to the bulletin was an improved edition of our policy statement “Billboards are not a benefit in Wisconsin,” which states the importance of scenery.
On April 21, in a victory for scenic beauty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the City of Austin over Reagan National Advertising, affirming the constitutionality of the longstanding distinction between content displayed on signs that are located on-premises and off-premises. The Supreme Court’s decision prevented an effort to convert static advertising signs to digital billboards, which had the potential to undo significant portions of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.
“This is a big victory for Scenic Wisconsin, Scenic America, and all our allies,” said Scenic Wisconsin President Gary Goyke. “The Supreme Court’s ruling puts a stop to this latest attempt by the outdoor advertising industry to chip away at the sacred legacy of the Highway Beautification Act, and it affirms a city’s right to have a say on what its streetscapes look like.”
We participated in drafting new Billboard Reform Bill in state legislature.
We engaged a popular and effective State Representative to draft a revised bill that would prohibit new billboards from being installed along the major highways of the State of Wisconsin. This new bill will be narrower in scope than the bill that was introduced two years ago. There were several State Senators and Assembly Representatives that indicated support for it and encouraged us to pursue further efforts. The stated opposition of majority party leadership has weakened and some uncertainty eliminated with the latest Supreme Court decision gives us additional hope in fighting these significant legislative battles.
Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation.
We remain active in support for Rustic Roads and Urban Forestry
During 2022 Scenic Wisconsin prepared for future efforts to establish a Northern Wisconsin River Scenic Byway and to support urban forestry by engaging experts and educating ourselves. We have discussed needed statutory changes for the scenic byway with a prominent State Senator and will continue those discussions in 2023. In addition, we will be working with our friends in Milwaukee on the important matter of preserving the Urban Forestry programs which help our largest city a great deal.
Scenic Wisconsin website updated… it is beautiful and relevant
The Scenic Wisconsin website continues to present interesting and influential information that is important in sustaining our scenic objectives. A prime example of this are the recent articles about digital billboards and about tree extinction. We spent much effort in 2022 keeping this site up to date and interesting.
Meet the Board of Directors.
Front row, from left: Charlie Mitchell, Vernie Smith, Shirley Brabender Mattox, Charles Clemence
Back row, from left: Gary Goyke, Emily Voigt, Ed Kleckner, Scott Becher
It takes financial support to continue to defend scenery against self-serving actions of the well-funded outdoor advertising industry. Please contribute as much as you are willing and able to, however much fits into your budget.
Your past support has gotten us this far. The promise of an even more Scenic Wisconsin is just around the corner and is linked irrevocably to our advocacy efforts. Can you please help us keep fighting to make our Mission Statement a bigger part of Wisconsin future?
Wishing all our friends and supporters a very Happy and Successful New Year!
Gary Goyke, President Charlie Mitchell, Founder
December 08, 2022
The mission of Citizens for a Scenic Wisconsin is to preserve and enhance the visual character of Wisconsin. We believe that America’s scenic heritage is fundamentally important to individual and collective well-being, to economic prosperity, to a healthy ecology, and to the quality of everyday life. Our objectives are to support and promote programs and policies that protect natural beauty in our environment, preserve landscapes and streetscapes, protect historic and cultural symbols such as barns, conserve trees, and improve the appearance of communities.
Higher efficiency plus broadband without unsightly towers
Major highways connecting cities across the country could someday be used to deliver green energy and high-speed internet service.
Wisconsin already has the “playbook” to make it happen, says a new study by the Wisconsin Technology Center that calls for the use of underground high-voltage power lines and broad-band cable along highway rights of way.
Underground power systems, aimed at delivering wind-generated electricity from rural areas to cities, could address several problems, said WTC President, Tom Still.
First, the buried lines would draw fewer objections from property owners facing the prospect of above ground towers and wires running across their land.
Second, the lines would be less vulnerable to storms, and even terrorist attacks that could cause widespread power outages.
Third, fiber internet cable could be bundled in the same trenches as the power lines to deliver internet service to rural areas.
The US electric grid is a complex web of power lines reaching nearly everywhere. It has been largely based on alternating current (AC) technology that for decades has proven safe and reliable.
“However, the AC power lines that criss-cross the nation are tangled and ill-suited to quicky move large amounts of renewable power from energy-producing regions with low demand, such as the Midwest and Southwest, to large population centers”, says the Federation of American Scientists.
A better choice would be high-voltage direct current (HVDC) systems that lose less power over long distances. Those systems would also support along-the-road charging of electric vehicles and advanced communications needed for autonomous vehicles.
One of the first underground HVDC systems has been planned for railroad rights-of-way from Mason City, Iowa, to the Chicago area.
This article by Charlie Mitchell is excerpts from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article by Rick Barrett, published July 26, 2022.
We often hear of extinction in the context of animals, but plants can—and have—become extinct, too. In fact, a 2020 paper cited 65 plant species that have recently become extinct in the continental U.S. and Canada. Recently extinct tree species include the Valley Head hawthorn, the Fecund hawthorn, and the Lateleaf oak. Threats to trees are becoming increasingly common and extinction is a major concern; up to 135 tree species face extinction in the US alone.
What factors are behind this loss? The most significant threats to tree populations include invasive pests, climate change, and loss of habitat due to pressures such as deforestation. While climate change causes instability in ecosystems around the world, overharvesting trees exacerbates the damage.
Major causes of deforestation include “agricultural expansion, wood extraction (e.g., logging or wood harvest for domestic fuel or charcoal), and infrastructure expansion such as road building and urbanization,” but are often driven by more complex systems.
Together, these threats pose high extinction risks for tree species around the world—a danger not only for the trees themselves but for the habitats and ecosystem services they support.
Tree cutting for billboard visibility is legal in 32 states.
Why Trees Are Important
The importance of trees is crucial on many levels. For one, tree biodiversity supports overall biodiversity. When a tree species dies out, it can take with it many other species that depended upon those trees for continued survival. Additionally, biodiversity loss is always a blow because of the possibly untapped potential of the species that disappear.
Tree extinction also creates a decline in the essential ecosystem services that trees provide. They produce oxygen, sequester carbon, strengthen soil against erosion, and perform a wide variety of other crucial functions. Trees are one of our best allies in tackling climate change, and their loss is heavily felt.
Native tree species are also particularly important because of the character they bring to their region. Try to imagine Savannah, Georgia without its moss-draped oak trees, or the Redwood Forest without its towering trees. Tree extinction causes us to lose not only a piece of nature but a piece of our identity along the way.
Courtesy of Scenic America, September 28, 2022 by Rebecca Aloisi
A new report takes aim at the privacy concerns raised by digital billboards, examining how advertisers use the insights they capture from digital ads to tailor the messages served up to people on digital billboards.
Developed by Big Brother Watch, a non-partisan and non-profit civil liberties organization based in the UK, the report shows how companies can use facial recognition-enabled billboards to serve up targeted ads to pedestrians, representing a fresh affront to personal privacy.
According to the report, advertisers can use these recognition technologies to target consumers based on their GPS location, gender, age, and behavioral data. Some companies use high-quality cameras to detect human faces, noting their demographic differences and even their emotional states when serving up ads on nearby billboards. All of this data is captured anonymously, without the consumer’s consent, and without a means of opting out of the targeting.
As the report states, “Going about the world with the feeling that cameras are not just recording video but analysing you as a person to shape your reality is an uncomfortable concept. This data is being gathered not just to work out if an ad campaign was successful but to alter how people experience reality without their explicit consent, all in an attempt to make more sales.”
“Privacy issues are a growing area of concern for digital billboards, and it’s important that consumers understand how their behaviors are being tracked and used by advertising companies without their consent,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “Communities that want to put up digital billboards need to ask themselves if they really want to introduce a new threat to their privacy while also compromising their safety, scenic qualities, and property values with digital signage.”
Courtesy of Scenic America, October 27, 2022 by Rebecca Aloisi
A new study suggests that digital highway signs that are designed to encourage safe driving contribute to an increase in nearby traffic accidents.
Study is here: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abm3427
Note that this publication requires uses to cut and paste this into their browsers),
The study, published in April 2022 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science on science.org, looked at several years of data from Texas to find that the number of vehicle crashes increased by an average of 4.5% in the 6.2 miles following signs displaying year-to-date road fatality statistics. Although these signs were meant to encourage safe driving, the research suggests that they have an opposite, distracting effect.
“When you’re on the road, your eyes belong on the road. Signs that take your attention away from the road and break your concentration are going to cause distracted driving and accidents, no matter what message they’re trying to convey,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “This study just adds to the body of research telling us that digital signs including billboards are traffic safety hazards that don’t belong on our roadways.”
For this study, researchers examined Texas highway crash data between August 2012 and December 2017. During this time, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) displayed messages on these signs reporting year-to-date highway fatalities as a means of encouraging safe driving. The signs appeared to have an opposite effect; the study authors noted an increase in accidents downstream of these signs during the weeks when such messaging was presented. In reviewing the data, the researchers found no difference in results when controlling for time of day, weather, vehicle type, driver age group, driver gender, and other variables.
The researchers concluded that the fatality messages caused an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 deaths for year, costing about $380 million each year. By applying this anticipated trend across the 28 states that used such messaging, the impact of this messaging platform and tactic multiplies. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 39,000 Americans died in traffic accidents in 2020, the highest number since 2007.
In 2021, the Federal Highway Administration determined that displaying traffic fatality statistics was not an appropriate use of these electronic messaging signs. The FHWA outlined acceptable uses for these signs, such as alerting travelers to traffic conditions and relevant, real-time travel information.
“Signs and digital billboards like these with changing messages serve one purpose: to catch drivers’ attention, which contributes to distracted driving, traffic accidents, and deaths. We’ve seen studies from Alabama, Florida, and around the world, and they all point to same conclusions,” added Falzone. “Any state or city that wants to add more signs to its roadways needs to take these risks very seriously.”
Additional study at: https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/resources/interpretations/2_09_174.htm
Courtesy of Scenic America.
On April 21, in a victory for scenic beauty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the City of Austin over Reagan National Advertising, affirming the constitutionality of the longstanding distinction between content displayed on signs that are located on-premises and off-premises.
With this ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that the City of Austin violated Reagan’s First Amendment rights by denying its request to convert static advertising signs to digital billboards—a decision that had the potential to undo significant portions of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.
“This is a big win for Scenic America, Scenic Texas, and all of our allies and a victory for common sense,” said Scenic America President Mark Falzone. “The Supreme Court’s ruling puts a stop to this latest attempt by the outdoor advertising industry to chip away at the sacred legacy of the Highway Beautification Act, and it affirms a city’s right to have a say on what its streetscapes look like.”
In the majority opinion, authored by Sonia Sotomayor, the Court noted:
“…federal, state, and local governments have long distinguished between signs (such as billboards) that promote ideas, products, or services located elsewhere and those that promote or identify things located onsite… tens of thousands of municipalities nation- adopted analogous on-/off-premises distinctions in their sign codes.
“In this case, enforcing the City’s challenged sign code provisions requires reading a billboard to determine whether it directs readers to the property on which it stands or to some other, offsite location…the City’s provisions at issue here do not single out any topic or subject matter for differential treatment… The on-/off-premises distinction is therefore similar to ordinary time, place, or manner restrictions.”
…It is the dissent that would upend settled understandings of the law. Where we adhere to the teachings of history, experience, and precedent, the dissent would hold that tens of thousands of jurisdictions have presumptively violated the First Amendment, some for more than half a century, and that they have done so by use of an on-/off-premises distinction this Court has repeatedly reviewed and never previously questioned. For the reasons we have explained, the Constitution does not require that bizarre result.”
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on November 10, 2021. Scenic America and its chapters and affiliates joined an amici curiae brief in support of Austin, which argued for personal property rights as well as scenic interests.
On the majority opinion, Sotomayor was joined by Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and John Roberts. Samuel Alito filed a concurring opinion, and Breyer also filed his own concurring opinion. Clarence Thomas filed a dissent, joined by Neil Gorsuch and Amy Comey Barrett. The opinions can be viewed here.
With this ruling now in place, Scenic America recognizes that communities across the country may have questions about how to address signage issues moving forward to avoid legal actions while protecting local interests and concerns.
And while the decision represents a significant step in the right direction, Scenic America acknowledges that the issue may not be fully resolved. In its decision, the Supreme Court remanded part of the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to potentially consider if the digital billboard ban survives another constitutionality test known as intermediate scrutiny. However, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, which originally reviewed the case, already ruled in favor of the City of Austin on this question. It is unclear whether or not the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will revisit it.
In another promising development, the U.S. Supreme Court declined on May 2 to take up a related question regarding taxes for off-premises billboards in Cincinnati and Baltimore. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court determined that Cincinnati’s billboard tax violated the First Amendment, while the Maryland Supreme Court found that a very similar tax in Baltimore did not.
“Scenic America is here to help towns and cities as they consider the impact of this decision on their own signage ordinances, now and in the future,” said Falzone. “For nearly 40 years, we have been fighting to protect the scenic beauty and visual qualities of our communities, and we are here to help any town, city, or resident that faces issues like this in the future.”
Learn more key facts about the case here. Courtesy of Scenic America.
A bill that would prohibit any more billboards from going up along the major highways in the State of Wisconsin was introduced in the state assembly by Representative Jill Billings (D – La Crosse) on March 10 and was referred to the Committee on Rules.
Dubbed the Billboard Reform Bill, it also had provisions to prevent rebuilding of non-conforming billboards, to disallow conversion of existing billboards to changing-message electronics, and to repeal allowing trees to be removed for the sole purpose of improving the view of a billboard.
On March 15, the bill (AB1146) failed to pass out of committee.
Due to blunt opposition from the leaders of the Republican-majority legislature during the course of the 2021 – 22 legislative session, the bill lacked co-sponsors. The provisions of the Bill, a distillation of provisions of scenic bills in previous years, were provided to Rep. Billings by Scenic Wisconsin. The bill is a strong statement of scenic principles applied to sign regulation.
Scenic Wisconsin president, Gary Goyke, stated at the Scenic Wisconsin board meeting in October that the main role of Scenic Wisconsin is to encourage state and local government officials to control billboards by respecting and enforcing sign regulations. The Billboard Reform Bill goes a long way toward accomplishing that goal, he said.Rep. Billings is a member of the Preservation Alliance of Wisconsin, was a member of the La Crosse County Board from 2004 to 2012, and has a reputation for scenic advocacy. She has been instrumental in getting new regulations into effect in La Crosse where there had been rampant billboard clutter.
Written by Charlie Mitchell
Advancing and defending the principles of Scenic Wisconsin made 2021 another busy year. From efforts toward ending billboard blight to advocating for Scenic Byways, agricultural tourism, and barn preservation, Scenic Wisconsin actively engaged with decision-makers and the public.
We joined the fight to save the right to regulate billboards
Supreme Court decision on Reagan v. Austin expected in the spring
The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Reagan Advertising v. City of Austin, Texas on November 10, a case that considers whether billboard restrictions violate first amendment rights. Reagan argued that regulating signs based on whether they are off-premises of the product advertised on them violates the right to free speech. At stake is whether federal and state governments will continue to have the right to regulate outdoor advertising signs, commonly known as billboards, along highways in this country. The justices expressed concerns about the implications of the case on the national landscape, the legacy of the Highway Beautification Act, and the costs of overturning long-standing scenic laws. The outcome is far from certain.
In August, Scenic Wisconsin joined other scenic-oriented state organizations in signing an amicus brief in support of the City of Austin. In October, we issued a strongly-worded bulletin in favor of Austin, to encourage people and organizations in Wisconsin to join the fray against Reagan. Attached to the bulletin was an improved edition of our policy statement “Billboards are not a benefit in Wisconsin”, which states the importance of scenery.
We facilitated drafting new Billboard Reform Bill in state legislature
We engaged with a Representative in the state assembly in drafting a new bill that would prohibit new billboards from being installed along the major highways of the state of Wisconsin. This new bill is much shorter and narrower in scope than the bill that was introduced two years ago and there were several senators and assembly representatives that indicated support for it. However, the bill has not yet been introduced due to heavy political headwinds: the stated opposition of majority party leadership and the uncertainty created by the impending Supreme Court decision.
We are active in support of Scenic Byways & Rustic Roads
During 2021, Scenic Wisconsin prepared for future efforts to establish a Northern Wisconsin River Scenic Byway. We have discussed needed statutory changes for the scenic byway with a prominent state senator and will continue those discussions in 2022. Also, we have been consulting experts as we continue to work with officials in the City of Milwaukee on strengthening the urban forestry programs which have important social, environmental and economic benefits.
Scenic website continues to present relevant, educational information
The Scenic Wisconsin website continues to present interesting and influential information that is important to sustaining our scenic objectives. Prime examples of this are the recent articles about the pending Supreme Court decision. Other subjects of articles over the past few years include: Climate change, how planting trees is practical as well as scenic; Scenic Byways and Habitat Highways; and saving iconic traditional dairy barns.
New directors this year: Emily Voight and Chuck Law
Emily Voight of Appleton, who ran for state assembly last year, is a member of the Calumet County Board of Supervisors, and helps manage Butterfly Gardens in Appleton. Chuck Law, professor emeritus at UW-Madison, directed the historic barns preservation programs for the UW-Extension and has advised Scenic Wisconsin about iconic barns for years.
It takes financial support to continue to defend scenery against self-serving actions of the well-funded outdoor advertising industry. Please contribute as much as you are willing and able to, however much fits into your budget.
Send your check to:
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LaCrosse, WI 54601
Thank you and happy holidays.
Archived News and Updates – For Reference
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