Georgia Supreme Court Clears the Way For Billboard Companies To Clear Cut Trees Along Public Highways
On May 6, 2013, the Georgia Supreme Court rendered a decision that will allow billboard companies to clear-cut trees along Georgia’s public rights-of-way when it upheld the constitutionality of House Bill 179 (the “Tree Removal Statute”).
Signed into law on May 12, 2011 by Governor Deal, the Tree Removal Statute gives extraordinary rights to billboard companies by allowing them to clear cut state-owned, roadside trees that obstruct their signs by paying only a fraction of the trees’ actual value.
Furthermore, the Tree Removal Statute grants billboard companies the option to offset the price to be paid for tree cutting by receiving credits for the cost of removing non-conforming or non-permitted billboards that the original billboard owner was already obligated to remove. The Tree Removal Statute significantly broadens the nature and scope of the legislation that was enacted in 2002 at the behest of the billboard industry.
The former law allowed removal only of selected trees within more narrowly defined target view zones, did not bar certain tree planting on public land within 500 feet of billboards, did not include the “credit” scheme, and did not allow billboard owners to cut within the first five years after a billboard was erected.
In a lawsuit filed in Columbus, Georgia, the City of Columbus, Georgia, the Gateways Foundation, and Trees Columbus challenged the constitutionality of the Tree Removal Statute. They asked the Superior Court to determine (1) that the Tree Removal Statute and its “credit” scheme are unconstitutional and (2) that certain “Beautification Plan” project sites in Columbus, Georgia are protected from removal. Trees Atlanta filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the position of the Columbus plaintiffs and participated in the oral argument before the Superior Court.
After a hearing, the Superior Court struck down the “credit” portion of the Tree Removal Statute as an unconstitutional gift of public property for private purposes. Although it upheld other portions of the law, the Superior Court put in place a statewide injunction that prohibited the Georgia Department of Transportation from issuing any permits to billboard companies for tree removal.
On May 6, 2013, Georgia’s Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of the Tree Removal Statute. As a result of this ruling, clear cutting of Georgia’s roadside trees may proceed apace to the extent they obstruct the motorist’s view of a billboard.
With more than 18,000 miles of state roads and 16,000 billboard faces in Georgia, the Tree Removal Statute can be expected to have a significant adverse impact upon Georgia’s trees on public lands and the aesthetics of Georgia’s public rights-of-way.
Although the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling is disappointing, Trees Atlanta remains committed to its mission of enhancing and preserving Atlanta’s urban forest and will continue in its efforts to conserve trees and educate our citizens regarding the importance of the urban forest to the health and enjoyment of our City.
If the Tree Removal Statute and this ruling upset you, Trees Atlanta encourages you to let your representative in the Georgia General Assembly know – through emails, phone calls, or letter writing campaigns – that you oppose the significant clear cutting that will be permitted to occur on our state highways and roads.
About Trees Atlanta
Trees Atlanta is a nationally-recognized citizens group that protects and improves Atlanta’s urban forest by planting, conserving and educating. Since 1985, Trees Atlanta has planted and distributed more than 96,000 trees. For more information about Trees Atlanta, visit www.treesatlanta.org or call 404-522-4097.