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Billboard law would lead to proliferation of eyesores, foes say

Colorado may think of itself as a cutting-edge, high-tech state, but in terms of outdoor advertising, it's really been a backwater until now.

That's according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which succeeded this week in lobbying for a new state law that would relax regulations on billboards. The main provision of the bill -- which drew both prominent support and opposition from the Colorado Springs area -- would abolish the state's ban on so-called "tri-vision" signs, which resemble Venetian blinds, with moving parts that enable them to display multiple messages.

House Bill 1269, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron May, R-Colorado Springs, and approved by the Senate on Monday, was just a matter of bringing Colorado up to speed with other states, said Ken Klein, a spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association. The Washington, D.C.based industry group testified in favor of the bill, which was previously approved by the House and is now awaiting Gov. Bill Owens' signature.

"By Colorado pursuing this, it would join the mainstream, because other states, including neighboring states, already allow changeable messages," Klein said. "It's joining the mainstream and catching up with technology."

But others, including the Colorado Springs City Council, several local legislators and a former first lady of the United States, aren't so sure the bill is a measure of progress. In fact, they say, regulations on outdoor advertising have helped preserve Colorado's beauty, vital to residents' quality of life as well as the tourism industry.

"Colorado is blessed with magnificent scenery and progressive programs to reduce clutter from unsightly billboards," said Larry Barrett, a Springs resident and president of Scenic Colorado, which led the charge against the bill. Barrett said the bill "would lead to more visual blight."

The Colorado Springs City Council last week joined forces with Barrett, taking the unusual step of adopting a resolution opposing HB 1269. The Springs, like many other cities, has a municipal code banning billboards with moving parts. Council members were concerned the new state law might overrule the local code, though the final bill was amended to guarantee that municipalities could still enforce their own regulations.

"We don't want that kind of advertising," said Councilman Richard Skorman, who introduced the resolution. "We have such a beautiful, natural landscape here."

Nonetheless, tri-vision billboards could soon come to a roadside near you. El Paso County currently has no ban on such billboards; neither does Pueblo County. Neighboring Douglas and Teller counties, meanwhile, have regulations that would likely prevent tri-vision billboards, Barrett said.

Sen. May did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. Records show May received a $500 campaign contribution in 2000 from the Colorado Outdoor Advertising Association, as well as $100 from Lamar Advertising, a local billboard company. The only Republican, and the only El Paso County delegate, to vote against the bill in the Senate was Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs.

Prior to the final vote, Sen. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, read a letter on the Senate floor from Lady Bird Johnson, the 90-year-old widow of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, opposing the bill. The former first lady was instrumental in passing the 1965 Federal Highway Beautification Act, a national law aimed at reducing roadside billboards.

In the House, area Reps. Richard Decker, Bill Sinclair and David Schultheis, all Republicans, opposed the bill. Decker said he was concerned about possible safety hazards posed by tri-vision billboards

"As a driver, I think some of these things catch our attention away from the road," Decker said. "That may not be a good idea."

Barrett also raised safety concerns, citing a study by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation that found that accidents increased along a Milwaukee highway after a billboard was erected that displayed changing messages.

Klein, meanwhile, pointed out that another study by the University of North Carolina concluded billboards are not a significant distraction to drivers. At the same time, however, Klein said he believed the billboards will entertain the public because the element of motion attracts attention.

"It's entertaining, eye-catching," Klein said.

Barrett said Scenic Colorado will ask Gov. Owens to veto the bill. If that doesn't succeed, the organization will lobby for local regulations in places that don't have them, such as El Paso County.

"We're not giving up," Barrett said.

-- Terje Langeland

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