Georgia Supreme Court rules against Columbus, in favor of billboard companies in tree-cutting dispute

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 6, 2013 

The Georgia Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling issued Monday morning has reversed a 2012 Muscogee County Superior Court decision that restricted billboard companies from cutting trees along the Georgia right of way.

The city of Columbus has been in on-and-off litigation against the Georgia Department of Transportation and CBS Outdoor Inc., since 2006 over the cutting of trees along I-185 in Columbus. The lawsuit has had statewide implications.

In 2011, the General Assembly amended the state law to allow outdoor advertisers who obtain permits to remove vegetation from the state’s rights-of-ways upon payment of the appraised value of the trees. The amended law enlarged the area an advertiser could clear around billboards, and it altered the number and type of trees that could be removed.

In January 2012, the city of Columbus filed suit against the DOT and the billboard companies. The trial court partially ruled for and against the parties on both sides. In the billboard companies’ favor, the trial court ruled that the statute and manual are constitutional. In the city’s favor, the trial court issued an injunction prohibiting the DOT from issuing any more vegetation removal permits while this lawsuit remained pending.

The trial court determined a jury would need to determine whether the city’s 1991 Master Beautification Plan constituted a “permitted beautification project” under the amended statute. It also found that the DOT’s “take-down credit” program, which gave the billboard owners credit toward their permit fees for removing old billboards, was an unconstitutional gratuity.

Both sides then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In its appeal, the city argued the amended statute violated the Georgia Constitution’s gratuities clause, trustee clause and due process clause.

“We disagree,” the opinion authored by Justice Harold Melton stated. The legislature specifically stated in its amended statute: “The General Assembly finds and declares that outdoor advertising provides a substantial service and benefit to Georgia and Georgia’s citizens as well as the traveling public.”

In its 2002 decision in Garden Club of Georgia v. Shackelford, the state Supreme Court concluded that there is no gratuity when the state receives a substantial benefit in exchange for the use of public property, writing that “we cannot say that [the General Assembly’s] decision to allow the cutting of trees on public property in exchange for information on billboards and the payment of the value of the trees amounts to an illegal gift under our constitution.”

“We decline to revisit these conclusions,” the opinion states.

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