Ky. should protect the public's trees from cutting for billboards

During at least 14 legislative sessions, the billboard industry has sought without success an OK to cut down and trim trees in public rights-of-way to make a clearer view of billboards.

Now the Beshear administration is trying to do through regulation what the General Assembly rejected all these years and what we can safely assume the public does not want.

The proposed regulation, which would also for the first time allow electronic billboards, made a confusing advance through the legislative review process this week.

Just about everyone in the room, including Transportation Cabinet officials, thought the regulation had stalled on opposition in the Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee

Rather than risk defeat, the cabinet asked for more time to work on the reg.

The next day, it was revealed that because the subcommittee took no action, the reg had advanced.

Next stop: the legislature's interim transportation committee, where lawmakers should do what the subcommittee apparently wanted to do by blocking the reg.

Kentuckians would rather see trees than billboards.

Also, there are constitutional questions about whether the state is allowed to give away the public's trees to benefit a private interest. And there are legal questions concerning the cabinet's authority to issue permits for billboard-friendly tree cutting. Certainly, the legislature never specifically granted it the authority to issue such permits.

All of these issues would make a nice lawsuit against the state, which is almost certain to follow adoption of a regulation permitting the billboard industry to fell trees owned by the state.

The question of electronic or LED billboards already is being litigated at the federal level.

In 2007, the Bush administration determined that signs that change every four to 10 seconds are not "intermittent" or "moving lights" as defined in the Highway Beautification Act. (Yes, you read that right.)

On that basis, the administration reversed a 30-year-position and gave a green light to states to allow electronic billboards. Not surprisingly a legal challenge was filed and is currently awaiting a court of appeals ruling in Washington.

The Transportation Cabinet should withdraw the rule and wait on a final ruling before enacting a regulation that could be nixed by federal courts.

State transportation officials say the current regulations on billboards are so outdated they have become unenforceable which puts some federal funds at risk.

The industry has agreed to remove old billboards for each new electronic billboard, thereby reducing the total number of billboards.

But electronic or LED billboards are so intrusive and distracting that it's far from a worthwhile trade-off for those who drive Kentucky's highways or live or work where electronic billboards would beam into their windows.