For the past 20 years, Columbus has led other Georgia cities in pushing for environmental enhancement. House Bill 179, pitting outdoor advertising companies against tree lovers, is just the latest battle.
“Columbus has a long-standing history of public-private partnerships, before a lot of other places, which implemented beautification plantings,” Trees Columbus Director Dorothy McDaniel said. “The appearance of our community impacts economic investment. It’s not just about people who love trees -- there’s a bigger picture.”
Under current law, cutting is allowed mostly on pulp trees and saplings. Advertisers are prohibited from cutting hardwoods larger than 8 inches in diameter and pines more than 12 inches in diameter on public rights of way, but HB 179 removes those restrictions.
The existing law, under which the state Department of Transportation charges advertisers for cutting down public trees, would now get a new twist: When a company has to take down a billboard with an expired permit, the cost of removing the old billboard would be counted as a credit against the cost of cutting trees for the new one.
The bill was in the Senate Rules Committee on Friday and could get to the full Senate floor for a vote Tuesday.
In the past, people trying to attract outside industry thought they should pick different routes when transporting clients downtown from the Columbus airport. “Our roadsides were unattractive,” McDaniel said.
So some local leaders went to work.
In 1991, developer John Flournoy was complaining aloud one day about the unsightliness of the city’s major roadways. Then-Mayor Frank Martin heard him and said, “Put your money where your mouth is,” Flournoy recalled last week. So Flournoy headed a group called the Gateways Committee, which eventually became the Gateways Project with a foundation.
The first two projects were beautification for two interchanges: the Victory Drive traffic circle and the Macon Road-Interstate 185 interchange. About $500,000 was raised for both. The committee worked a deal with the state that they wanted to hire private contractors to maintain the projects, including irrigation. From there came a master plan that eventually resulted in about $29 million in city beautification work thus far.
The Gateways Foundation, along with Trees Columbus, was a plaintiff in 2007 to halt tree-cutting along I-185 in Columbus. “It’s a scenic byway,” said Ken Henson, a local attorney and Trees Columbus board member. “It does make a difference.”
Flournoy’s latest effort is an overpass, monument and park to welcome people to Fort Benning. The biggest Gateways Project to date, it’s $6.8 million. He said he’s paying attention to the current billboard bill and has sent e-mails to legislators but is more focused on the project at Fort Benning.
Sam Wellborn, a retired Columbus banking executive and veteran Department of Transportation board member, has worked “hand in glove” on beautification with Flournoy for 20 years, Flournoy said.
Wellborn was one on the state level who helped protect I-185 from billboard blight.
“I’m not totally against billboards,” Wellborn said in 2007, “but I am totally against billboards on I-185. ... This is a very important event for our entire region. Not only will this designation preserve an already prestigious corridor, but it will forever prevent billboards and will increase tourism.”
In addition, Wellborn worked on transportation enhancement projects including the Chattahoochee Riverwalk, Veterans Parkway and the Wynnton Road streetscape. In 2008, the Keep Columbus Beautiful Commission awarded Wellborn for his efforts.
Nine years after the Gateways Project got off the ground, Trees Columbus was founded. It began because of a threat of cutting down selected trees in Lakebottom Park.
Columbus’ work on environmental-protection issues has gotten noticed.
“Columbus is one of the best in the second-tier (cities), by far,” said Marcia Bansley, executive director of Trees Atlanta.
Thanks to city leaders’ efforts for 20 years, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce President Mike Gaymon said he knows potential businesspeople are now impressed with what they see here, compared with 20 years ago.
“I don’t know that it hurts you,” he said of unsightly landscapes, but added that having attractive ones “certainly helps you.” He’s sensitive to the business side, too -- that people need to advertise their products and services -- but he pushes for “sustainability and common sense.”
“It’s important to look at the city through the eyes of a visitor,” he said.
Columbus philanthropist Kyle Spencer, the Trees board chairman, this week called billboards “frankly repulsive. They seem to be growing nationally. I don’t see how billboard companies can rent a piece of property then obliterate or denigrate the landscape. There’s an economic value, too. If I rent a piece of property to someone for $100 a month and he puts up a billboard and gets money in excess of what he’s paying me, I don’t think there’s equity.
“But aesthetics is the seminal cause of this.”
State Reps. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, and dean of the Columbus delegation Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, all voted against it. Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said Friday he’s against the bill, too.
Ken Henson thinks his side could lose this round.
“It probably will pass the Senate, but stranger things have happened; and it will probably go to the governor unless someone says it’s unconstitutional,” Henson said.
Gloria Weston-Smart of Keep Columbus Beautiful has been involved in the local beautification projects since at least 1999, when she became director of the nonprofit. She helped defeat a similar bill two years ago. She testified before a House subcommittee two weeks ago, along with Henson and Columbus City Councilor Glenn Davis. All three are opposed to it.
“It’s not a good bill,” Weston-Smart said last week. “It’s been a tough issue. ... For us in Columbus, every citizen ought to take pride in the Gateways projects.”
In the early 1990s, then-DOT Commissioner Hal Rives reportedly told John Flournoy he was skeptical about the local control over irrigation.
“Don’t tell John Flournoy you can’t do something because then it will get done,” Gaymon said.
Allison Kennedy, 706-576-6237