A Scenic History

Scenic Houston’s roots are deep, born in a local advocacy effort to battle the unregulated proliferation of billboards in our city. In 1966, concerned Houstonians led by architect Ralph Anderson and attorney Carroll Shaddock formed the non-profit group Billboards Limited to fight against mushrooming billboard blight. Billboards Limited fought to establish, for the first time ever, a City of Houston sign ordinance as a means to create standards and regulations for billboards. Despite overtures from Billboards Limited to work together in this process, the billboard industry fought any kind of regulation and would not compromise. Another challenge was that City elected leadership of the era was ineffective in leading stakeholders toward establishing effective standards.

By 1980, Houston was home to over 10,000 billboards, and was known in the press as the “Billboard Capital of the World.”  Not only Billboards Limited, but a new generation of community leaders could see that this notorious nickname gave Houston an economic development black eye.  Thanks to the efforts of Billboards Limited, that same year, Houston City Council unanimously passed an ordinance banning new billboard construction in the city. Once new billboard construction was stopped, then redevelopment, attrition, and continuing anti-billboard advocacy began to gain traction. As a direct result of this ordinance, billboard inventory was reduced from 10,000+ billboards in 1980 to 1,309 in 2019.  This landmark ordinance has had a significant impact on the visual character of Houston’s local streets and neighborhoods.  Today, the remainder of Houston’s billboard inventory is situated mostly along freeway corridors where these signs are protected from amortization and removal under a 1980s federal law known, ironically, as the Highway Beautification Act

This significant turning point in the local campaign for signage standards sparked a desire for statewide advocacy to protect the appearance and quality of life of roads and streets statewide. As a result, in 1984, Billboards Limited was reorganized as The Lone Star Roadside Council, a state-wide non-profit organization. A final name change occurred in 1991 with the establishment of Scenic Texas, Inc. as the statewide 501(c)(3) entity, with Scenic Houston as its largest and most active local chapter. Scenic Texas and Scenic Houston are affiliates of Scenic America.

Scenic Houston has maintained its sign regulation expertise and expanded its agenda to focus on streetscape improvements, scenic byway development and enhanced design standards for public projects.  Publication of a Streetscape Resource Guide, direction of the Broadway Corridor Redevelopment Project, coordination of an Airport Corridor Improvement Initiative and administration of the Scenic City Certification Program are examples of Scenic Houston’s work to shape communities with striking visual character.

LATE 1990s – PRESENT | GREEN RIBBON PLANTINGS

Scenic Houston was instrumental in securing the adoption of Texas legislation that requires a portion of a highway construction project’s budget be spent on landscaping. Because this legislation only applies to new projects, Scenic Houston also successfully pushed for federal funds to landscape Houston’s already-completed highways. Combined, these plantings have produced 820 acres of “green ribbon corridors” throughout the Houston area. On these acres, TxDOT has now planted more than one million trees. Prior to the 1999 initiation of the program, TxDOT’s total Houston-area tree plantings numbered 18,868, an increase of 5,299%!

The Green Ribbon Program is funded through biannual state appropriations. Scenic Houston and Scenic Texas work each legislative session to ensure that funding is maintained.

2007 | REDUCING HOUSTON’S BILLBOARD INVENTORY BY 20% – CLEAR CHANNEL AGREEMENT

Without the efforts of Scenic Houston, Houston City Council would have approved a settlement agreement in December 2007 to allow 466 billboards to be relocated twice over a 20 year period to new sites all over our City, including major thoroughfares which are now billboard-free thanks to redevelopment since the City’s no-new-billboards ordinance was adopted in 1980. When Scenic Houston and many citizen stakeholders voiced objections to the settlement terms, Scenic Houston was invited to serve as a resource to the Mayor as his team re-worked the agreement. Scenic Houston representatives suggested the method of economic analysis that served as the basis for the negotiations and participated in the negotiating process along with City personnel. As a result, in April 2008, the City of Houston and Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. signed a compromise and settlement agreement intended to resolve disputes and controversies, and to avoid any future litigation, over the Houston Sign Code and its application to Clear Channel’s inventory in Houston and its extra-territorial jurisdiction. More than 800 billboards have been removed as a result of the settlement and none is being relocated.

 The agreement:

  • Addresses 831 billboard structures in Clear Channel’s inventory – 100% of its small billboards and 40% of its medium boards.
  • Does not relate to the large bulletin boards most commonly found along freeways.
  • Became effective on January 31, 2009.

The citizens received:

  • Removal of 538 (100%) of Clear Channel’s small billboard structures. This equates to every small billboard in Houston, as only Clear Channel still maintains an inventory of these structures.
  • Removal of 293 (40%) of Clear Channel’s medium billboard structures.
  • Removal of 51 (80%) of the billboards (both small and medium) in the City’s Scenic Districts. With this agreement, several Scenic Districts will be completely billboard-free and almost every billboard currently standing in Downtown will be removed.

Clear Channel received:

  • Retention of 466 medium structures. These will not be subject to amortization for the next 20 years, and at the end of the 20 years they are subject to whatever applicable law is in effect at that time.
  • 20-year extension of the life of 24 bulletins across Houston which were slated to have come down as follows: 10 in 2013, 1 in 2012, 6 in 2007, 7 in 2007

Scenic Houston’s contribution:

  • The best body of research, history of billboard analysis and legal expertise on sign issues in the City (as the ONLY entity that serves as a counterweight to the billboard industry).
  • A focus on details, including insistence on and assistance in verifying inventory data.
  • An understanding of the economic value to Clear Channel of the trade.
  • A missing perspective regarding the ability to trade for bulletins in lieu of allowing relocations of 466 boards.

2008-2009 CLEAR CHANNEL NEGOTIATION REMOVALS

2008 | ELIMINATING ATTENTION-GETTING DEVICES

With policy analysis and research data developed by Scenic Houston as a basis, in 2008, Houston City Council adopted an ordinance to prohibit the commercial use of “attention-getting devices,” or AGDs. These include the giant, cartoonish, inflatables seen atop businesses, as well as streamers, pennants, flags, wind devices and the like. Eliminating AGDs cleans up very real visual blight along our freeways and major thoroughfares, reduces dangerous driver distraction, eliminates safety hazards along the right-of-way, enables a clearer and more effective view of a business’s permanent signage and saves the business owner the expense of purchasing the AGDs. And, in our unzoned City where residential areas are not separated from retail and commercial centers, this cleanup had a very real and immediate impact on our neighborhoods.

2008 | BILLBOARD BAN – NO DIGITAL BILLBOARDS

In 2008, Houston City Council voted with no opposition to reconfirm and restate a total ban on off-premises billboards. This action reaffirmed and further strengthened the existing 1980 ban by explicitly stating that converting any existing billboard to digital would violate the city’s no-new-billboards law. Scenic Houston was responsible for encouraging the Council to reaffirm the law. Our successful efforts to create awareness about the blight caused by billboards were evidenced by how easily this ordinance was adopted.

 

2009 | STRONG IMPROVEMENTS TO THE HOUSTON SIGN CODE

Thanks to Scenic Houston’s role as a member of a 2009 Mayor’s On-Premises Sign Task Force, today’s Houston Sign Code now provides for fewer, smaller and less intrusive on-premises signage throughout the city. Task Force recommendations that were adopted by City Council included size and height reductions for signs along major thoroughfares and freeways; creation of a new most-restrictive category of signs for residential areas; restrictions on wall, projecting and roof signs; a new requirement that window signs have a permit; and limitations on the number, size and brightness of electronic changeable message signs.  All these changes strengthened the existing sign code, which had not been revised since 1992.

2014-2017 | BILLBOARD TAKEDOWNS

Because the City of Houston was unable to negotiate the removal of dozens of “past their due date” amortized billboards, the City asked Scenic Houston to assist in updating and modernizing the city’s billboard database and advise on the City’s strategy, due to Scenic Houston’s streetscape expertise. Scenic Houston’s advice and counsel served as the basis for three separate agreements between the City and major billboard companies to permanently remove 66 billboards across the City over a 30-month period.

2015-2017 | SAVING THE TEXAS HIGHWAY BEAUTIFICATION ACT

An unexpected 2016 court ruling gutting the Texas Highway Beautification Act could have resulted in a loss of $350 million in federal highway funding and a loss of TxDOT’s ability to regulate billboards if Scenic Houston had not weighed in.  In 2016, Scenic Houston organized amicus legal briefs filed with the Austin Third Court of Appeals seeking a judicial cure and in 2017 crafted legislation seeking a statutory cure to the issue, which had to do with balancing first amendment free speech issues with the ability to issue billboard permits.  SB 2006, which statutorily repaired the constitutional issues raised by the court, was passed by the Texas Legislature in May and signed by the Governor in June 2017.  This legislation precluded the need for further redress to the courts.  The Texas Highway Beautification Act was reinstated as a pillar that supports the visual character of Texas roadways and urban entryway corridors.

2015-2018 | THE BROADWAY/HOBBY CORRIDOR REDEVELOPMENT PROJECT 

Scenic Houston provided streetscape enhancements along the Broadway Street airport corridor connecting William P. Hobby Airport to I-45 Gulf Freeway. Broadway Street had been rebuilt by the City of Houston, but with no budget for streetscape enhancements. Scenic Houston, not wanting to miss an opportunity to create a high-impact, beautifully landscaped gateway, raised the necessary $6.2 million to provide infrastructure and aesthetic improvements to the corridor.

Enhancements included:

  • 410 new trees — Live Oak, Elm, Mexican
  • Sycamore, Water Oak, Monterrey Oak, Natchez Crepe Myrtle
  • Distinctive pedestrian crosswalks, featuring red brick inlays
  • Extensive, lush landscaping the length of the boulevard’s wide median
  • Modern state-of-the-art LED streetlights lining the full length of the corridor
  • Maintenance infrastructure plan in place, through Hobby Area Management District

The Broadway Project was completed in January 2017, just before Super Bowl LI, when the eyes of the world turned to Houston. Now complete, a fresh, attractive Broadway provides a new “Welcome to Houston” for visitors and has created a vibrant new sense of community character.