WASHINGTON – Maryland’s 217 miles of designated scenic byways, leading to areas such as Assateague State Park on the Eastern Shore and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, provide an unobstructed view of some of the most beautiful landscapes in the state.
They are protected from billboard construction by federal government regulations.
But if the House’s National Highway System bill becomes law, individual states will be empowered to determine if billboards can be erected on commercial and industrial portions of the byways.
The Senate version of the bill left the billboard regulations unchanged, so differences will have to be resolved in a House-Senate conference committee.
“This is an issue that … is setting itself up as one of the more contentious,” said Frank Vespe, director of policy for the Washington-based scenic byways advocacy group, Scenic America. He said he is “somewhat optimistic that the Senate’s version will prevail.”
Scenic America and similar advocacy groups are working to keep regulations prohibiting the billboards in place.
“The whole scenic byway program will be a farce if they’re going to allow new billboards on all those roads,” Vespe said.
Billboards on scenic byways are “as out of place as beer cans in a mountain stream,” he said.
But Kippy Burns, director of communications for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, said the House bill merely reaffirms the intent of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.
The 1965 legislation allowed billboards in almost any place with commercial activity, even if it was only one business in a several-mile radius, Vespe said.
A spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., introduced the billboard provision in the highway bill because he felt that states should have the right to make a decision on billboards. The House approved the provision as part of the bill Wednesday.
Among members of the Maryland delegation, there is some disagreement on whether the billboard prohibition should be lifted. There was no separate vote on the issue when the highway bill came to a vote in the House.
Mary Anne Leary, spokeswoman for Rep. Constance Morella, a Montgomery County Republican, said her boss “would prefer to have a national restriction for billboards on scenic highways.”
But Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican from Western Maryland, said states should be able to make their own decisions.
“I think that the people who live there are more concerned about how their community looks than someone inside the Beltway, and I think they’ll make the best judgments,” he said.
Scenic byways were designated as early as 1913, when construction began on the Bronx River Parkway in New York. The National Park Service developed the first national parkway – the Washington area’s George Washington Memorial Parkway – in the early 1930s.
One of Maryland’s largest scenic byways stretches from U.S. Highway 219 in Oakland to state Route 90 in Ocean City. It meanders past the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River; Maryland’s oldest courthouse in Centreville; and the B&O Railroad Station in Oakland.
“These [scenic byways] pass through areas [of] cultural and historical interests, as well as scenic natural beauty,” such as forests, gardens, parks and battlegrounds, said Kris Bevans, a State Highway Administration spokeswoman.
“Scenic route” markers, adorned with a cheerful black-eyed susan, have been placed along the roadside to distinguish scenic byways from other highways.
Highways are designated scenic for three reasons, Vespe said.
The designation provides a service to drivers, informing them about points of interest that may make their travel more enjoyable. “The idea was that driving a car ought to be more than driving from point A to point B,” Vespe said.
The designation helps the community economically by encouraging travel in areas that may have been bypassed or overlooked. And, with grassroots support, the designation ensures that communities will remain scenic by encouraging them to conserve their unique characteristics, Vespe said.
As of 1990, 51,518 miles of the nation’s highways were designated scenic.
In 1991, Congress provided an “extra layer of protection” for scenic byways, prohibiting the construction of billboards along these roads and along federally aided interstates and primary highways, Vespe said.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee spokesman Jeff Nelligan said the Federal Highway Administration interpreted the 1991 provision as saying billboards couldn’t be put anywhere along scenic highways. But, he said, “a majority of members felt that they had interpreted it wrong.” -30-