Who Owns the Public View?

There is a strip of US 192 in Osceola, Florida, that people used to consider “Tacky Town,” a drab stretch of road that was filled with junky tourist amusements and strip malls — a place with ditches lining the side of the road and no sidewalks. In the 1980s, as National Public Radio reported in a wonderful segment yesterday,

But the community’s effort to reclaim its space and make it beautiful didn’t count on one thing — the billboard industry. Clear Channel Outdoor, a major national purveyor of billboard space, complained that the trees planted on the public right-of-way were blocking the view of its billboards. Craig Swygert, the head of the Orlando division of the company, argued that the government was unfairly diminishing the value of Clear Channel’s investments in billboards, and so the tree needed to come down. “The billboards were there first…,” he told NPR.

According to Scenic America, a beautification group, this trend is sweeping the country. The billboard industry is lobbying state legislatures to obtain laws that prohibit the planting of trees on the public rights-of-way that might block billboards. At issue, reporter David Baron points out, is “Who gets to control the view? Why should a private industry dictate what the public sees on a public highway?”

In response to Clear Channel, the Florida legislature passed a law in 2006 that calls for the cutting of hundreds of trees on public rights-of-way if they might block billboards. The company argued that the reclaimed strip of Route 192 was a “tourism corridor,” and so the billboards should of course prevail over trees.

When the Orlando Sentinel published a story about the new law, there was a public outcry. “What kind of ignorant person passed this law?” one resident asked. “Haven’t the developers taken away enough trees and plant life?” But in the end, the industry won and state transportation officials cut down 16 “illegal” crape myrtles trees in the median strip of the roadway.

And so go the forces of market enclosure in American life: another mundane manifestation of a pervasive trend.

In a poetic ending to his story, NPR reporter David Baron notes the quiet rebellion of the man who oversees the highway for Osceola County, Hector Lizasuain. Lizasuain discovered that “the crape myrtles did not die as intended.”

They are now sprouting through a bed of low-growing shrubs on the highway median. Lizasuain is quietly letting the trees live. He keeps them trimmed to a tiny size so no one notices they’re there, but to him they serve in silent protest to the billboard law. Should those in power someday change the law back in favor of the trees, the crape myrtles will be ready to emerge and provide a canopy of flowers that, for now, remains illegal.

A parable of the commons.

To read or listen to the full story on NPR, go to this link.