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Who will pull down those billboards?

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

This city's enduring grace, many would argue, depends on its natural and created beauty, from the hills and lakes to the old neighborhoods and new towers.

Billboards, which disrupt those beauties, are like a social poke in the eye for visitors and locals.

One man, in a single stroke, could rid Austin of more than half its billboards. Billy Reagan is the president of Reagan National Advertising, the city's dominant pole sign firm. Reagan also is an ardent Austinite.

"It's a great city; it's beautiful," says Reagan, who loves the outdoors. "By and large, the mindset in Austin is one that ... they put a really high priority on quality of life here."

Cool. So I asked him, at his vibrantly painted building on Burleson Road, to do Austin a favor by tearing down all those billboards.

"We want to help shape Austin's future and be a part of it," says Reagan, whose company owns between 450 and 500 signs in the area. He wants to protect the city's scenic vistas, he says, but also keep his business at locations "where they are an appropriate use."

So nothing can be done about this plague of billboards?

My route to Burleson Road went through the sunny offices of Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez.In 2008, riding a wave of anti-billboard sentiment, Martinez tried to decrease their numbers.

"I don't think anyone should be exposed to an inordinate amount of billboards," Martinez says.

Seeking a consensus, Martinez had noticed how many pole signs were clustered in East Austin neighborhoods that were no longer major routes out of town. The city had grown up around them.

Yet because Reagan — as well as Lamar Advertising Company and others — retained "holding rights" on old signs and are forbidden to replace them, the companies leave them up, even if they are not producing revenue.

So Martinez proposed, first, documenting the extant billboards. These can now be monitored by citizens on the City of Austin's new website, which links the reader to the location and status of each sign.

Martinez also tried to broker a deal that would allow outdoor advertisers to replace two old signs with a new one in a location with higher traffic. That would bring down the raw numbers.

That did not appeal to Scenic Austin, a group that opposes billboards and takes a "no new billboards" stance. The sign companies also resisted what they considered punitive buffer zones.

"It didn't eliminate a single billboard," Martinez says of the 2008 effort. In fact, some old billboards still sit behind tall trees or buildings, out of view, but are retained by sign companies as future bargaining chips.

"The ad industry fights us tooth and nail," Martinez says. "They will go all the way to the legislature for relief."

He recalled something Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell had told him: "There are those who have been burned by billboards and there are those that will be."

Inext met with architect and Scenic Austin stalwartGirard Kinney along with fellow visual-pollution fighter Kate Meehan at Royal Blue Grocery on Congress Avenue. On a wet December day, they handed me a stack of papers documenting years of billboard limitation proposals.

"Any time a billboard company proposes a 2-for-1, 3-for-1 or even 4-for-1 swap, a large percentage of those are not performing anyway," Kinney says, an assertion that Reagan denies. "The ones that come down will come down anyway."

He says that natural attrition, as properties have changed hands, has lowered the numbers of billboards within Austin city limits from 1,300 to less than 700 since a 1980s-era ordinance that forbid new signs. Yet various amendments have allowed advertisers to wiggle out of the ultimate goal of elimination.

Kinney attests to Reagan's personal charm and to the effectiveness of some outdoor advertising.

"The city has been beaten so many times that the legal department is reluctant to stick their necks out," Kinney says. He says the city's business leadership should get more involved: "Billboards lower the value of all property."

In our relaxed chat, Reagan listed the benefits of billboards: They generate jobs directly; help small, local businesses and nonprofits spread the word; give artists periodic creative outlets; generate taxes and serve other civic functions, such as pointing drivers to alerts for missing relatives.

Reagan also favors reasonable regulation, including some elements in Martinez's original plan.

My simple counterpoint: Billboards block views of Austin and lower the appeal of the city.

So why not emulate European, Asian and some American cities by moving advertising to discreet, images locked into the careful design of new or old developments, like the classic building-side murals cherished almost universally.

"I'd love to be able to take my sign and incorporate it into development," Reagan says. "It's not possible now because of regulation."

What if Reagan could add new, architectural ads? Could he see a day when pole signs go away for more modern alternatives?

Reagan: "I would be very supportive of that."

mbarnes@statesman.com