Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Another Sign of Ike

Ike's winds did more than knock down trees and power lines. It also damaged hundreds of outdoor signs. According to an article in the Houston Chronicle:
For billboards, the city ordinance says that if the cost of repairing the weather damage is more than 60 percent of the cost of erecting a new sign, the billboard comes down. For business signs grandfathered at sizes larger or taller than what is now allowed, the rule is similar — those signs most be rebuilt smaller and conforming if the damage repair would cost more than 60 percent of the cost of building a new sign.

The anti-sign movement, led by Scenic Houston, seeks to rid the city of billboards and similar "clutter". From their web site:
Scenic Houston works to reduce existing billboard blight, prevent new billboard construction, foster attractive on-premise signage, incorporate context sensitive design in the planning of highways and other public projects, and protect the natural beauty and distinctive character of our communities for the benefit of successive generations.

As with many other groups, they don't like something and seek to use government coercion to impose their likes and dislikes on the rest of the city. The rights and preferences of the property owner are swept away like storm surge.

As is often the case with these mini-tyrants, patience has been their ally. The anti-billboard movement has been active in Houston since 1966. It has slowly but consistently pushed for ever tougher restrictions on outdoor signs. Each time they propose tougher restrictions they are willing to compromise, because each compromise moves them closer to their ultimate goal.

The sign industry has opposed these restrictions, but continues to compromise itself out of existence. For example, when it was proposed that downtown Houston be designated a scenic district and therefore off limits to billboards, according to the Houston Business Journal the sign industry did not complain:
Representatives of Clear Channel Communications Inc., which dominates nearly 80 percent of the local outdoor advertising market, say they aren't against creation of the downtown district.

The reason, however, has more to do with simple economics than ethical considerations. Historically, they say, downtown billboards haven't proven that profitable or effective.

So they abandon the moral high ground-- that is, their right to conduct business without intervention from the government-- simply because downtown isn't a profitable location for signs. What if that were to change? And how will they respond when an area that is profitable is targeted to be designated as a scenic district?

Most likely they will try to make an economic argument. But having surrendered the moral high ground, having refused to defend their rights in the past, such arguments will hold little power. They will be accused of being greedy, of being interested in nothing more than "the almighty dollar", or something similar. And all they will have as a response is the number of jobs that billboards create.

For too long Houston businesses have refused to defend their rights. For too long they have willingly sacrificed their values to those of some noisy gang. For too long they have attempted to compromise themselves out of controversy. In the end, they will have no rights, and thus be unable to pursue their values. They are compromising themselves out of existence.

If Houston businesses, and the outdoor sign industry in particular, wishes to have a future, they must begin defending themselves on a moral basis. They must assert their right to live free from the dictates of others. They must declare their right pursue their values. They must reject the premise that their businesses, their values, and their lives can be sacrificed. Then and only then, will their future be secure.

For more on the Houston sign ordinance, and a brief history of property rights issues in Houston, see my article in The Freeman, published in 1990.

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