December Scenic Citizen: Cooke Kelsey
Scenic Houston is thrilled to announce Cooke Kelsey as the December 2021 Scenic Citizen! A member of the Scenic Houston Board of Directors since 2018, Kelsey’s enduring connection to the organization began very early in life. “I was born into it,” says Kelsey. His father Mavis Kelsey has been a tireless advocate for scenic initiatives for decades, serving on many boards, including Scenic Houston and Billboards, Ltd., Scenic Houston’s predecessor. Scenic issues were a frequent topic of discussion around the Kelsey dinner table. “Scenic Houston is the thing my dad was most passionate and proud of. I couldn’t help but be affected by that.” Scenic Houston Founder Ralph Anderson, Jr. was a family friend, and Kelsey recalls Anderson’s passionate description of the scenic movement over a Thanksgiving meal. In addition to billboard advocacy, Anderson also helped design the Astrodome. Kelsey considers Anderson an unsung hero of Houston.
Over the past year Kelsey has wielded his legal expertise to help Scenic Houston and state chapter Scenic Texas achieve several landmark rulings for scenic advocates nationwide. The highest profile of these cases, City of Austin v. Reagan Advertising, is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case considers whether the regulation of billboards violates the First Amendment rights of advertising companies. Amassing a diverse coalition of scenic and environmental organizations, developers, and chambers of commerce, Kelsey led an unprecedented effort to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. If the Court upholds the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 opinion favoring Reagan, billboard bans and sign ordinances in communities across the country will be unenforceable, limiting the ability of state and local governments to restrict billboard advertising and undoing much of the Highway Beautification Act. The Court is expected to issue a ruling in early 2022.
The impact of Kelsey’s legal advocacy on behalf of Scenic Houston is no surprise, given the track record of his civil litigation and white-collar criminal defense practice based in Houston. Kelsey’s expertise spans issues as varied as financial fraud, international contract disputes, civil forfeiture, real estate disputes, federal civil rights class actions, wrongful termination, FLSA, and legal malpractice defense.
Kelsey graduated with honors from the Plan II Honors Program at the University of Texas at Austin and received his law degree from the University of Texas Law School as a Dean’s Excellence Scholar. During and after law school, he clerked for Judge Melinda Harmon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District, Judge Jennifer Elrod of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Justice Brett Busby of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals of Texas. As a clerk, Cooke handled over 200 cases, gaining a uniquely comprehensive perspective on how decisions are made on the other side of the table.
Before law school, Kelsey devoted over a decade to public service, engaging in social entrepreneurship ventures. Most notably, he was a key member of the team that launched Music National Service, an education start-up. The program was a public/private partnership within public school systems in six cities.
Kelsey lives in the Westmoreland historic district, a neighborhood just southwest of downtown Houston that was planned in the early 1900’s. Westmoreland is Kelsey’s favorite scenic spot in Houston. Despite encroaching urban development, the historic character of the neighborhood has been reclaimed and maintained, thanks to homeowners’ efforts to restore the remaining original houses.
“My hope for Houston is that more people learn about Scenic Houston and support us,” Kelsey says. “Scenic Houston is the leader of the scenic movement nationwide. It’s something that every Houstonian should be proud of. It’s a uniquely Houston success story.” We’re grateful to Kelsey for playing a crucial role in the success story. It’s only because of the relentless devotion of volunteers like Kelsey that Scenic Houston continues to make remarkable strides to preserve and enhance Houston’s visual environment.