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Georgia court ruling is setback for state
Other opinion
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Columbus lost a huge one in court this week, and it wasn't even close. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that a 2012 Muscogee County Superior Court decision protecting trees along Georgia rights-of-way is invalid.
The 2012 decision had handed a victory to the city of Columbus in its suit against billboard companies and the Georgia Department of Transportation over the issue of outdoor advertisers cutting trees along I-185.
What really escalated the longstanding debate between outdoor advertisers and Georgians who prefer seeing trees to billboards is a 2011 state law that lets advertisers cut trees from along state highways in exchange for payment to the state of the appraised value of the trees. The law also broadened the area around a billboard that could be cut. Another point of contention was a DOT program under which the cost of taking down old billboards is credited toward fees for putting up new ones.
It was that policy that gave Columbus at least a partial victory in the 2012 case, when the Superior Court ruled that the "take-down" credit program violates the state constitution by granting the billboard industry a gratuity.
On Monday, the state's highest court emphatically disagreed. The ruling cited a clause in the 2011 law: "The General Assembly finds and declares that outdoor advertising provides a substantial service and benefit to Georgia and Georgia's citizens as well as the traveling public."
It also cited its own precedent in a 2002 case which denied the plaintiffs' claim that a "decision to allow the cutting of trees on public property in exchange for information on billboards and the payment of the value of the trees amounts to an illegal gift under our constitution."
There are couple of points here that many of us no doubt find legitimately debatable. The first, of course, is the idea that billboards on public -- i.e., taxpayer-purchased -- rights-of-way constitute a "substantial service and benefit" to Georgia and her citizens. (We'd be more inclined to say that about the trees.)
There's also a valid debate about whether the value of the billboard "information" the court cited in its 2002 ruling legitimately outweighs the value, "to Georgia and Georgia's citizens," of the trees cut -- again, on public rights-of-way -- to display it. And if the DOT's program of granting credits to outdoor advertisers for doing what they're obliged to do already isn't a "gratuity" (read: sweetheart deal), maybe we don't really want to know what is.
The Supreme Court ruled only on the narrow question of whether the 2011 law is constitutional. Sadly, the decision that it is means the same legislature that passed the law would have to undo it.
We're not holding our breath. And we're left wondering, again, just whose interests the Georgia General Assembly represents.

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