The State of California has passed legislation to limit the cutting of trees and shrubs that block the view of billboards on state land. The law authored by Senator Don Perata, D-Alameda, is intended to prevent unauthorized trimming and removal of foliage by billboard companies. The office of Governor Gray Davis reports that the problem of illegally cutting trees is particularly bad in West Hollywood. Some cities and towns offer rewards for such illegal cutting, but the state-wide law is taking a harder line. The penalty for a damaged tree is now $10,000, and for shrubs the fine is $1,000.
The problem of unauthorized vegetation cutting by a few sign owners goes back many years in California. One sign operator is reported to have cut down redwood trees to enhance the view of billboards. Several years ago the State of California obtained a settlement of $100,000 from Adco Outdoor for illegally cutting and trimming trees in front of 14 different signs. Even though authorities caught Adco in the act of cutting trees twice, the settlement involved long and expensive civil litigation.
Caltrans (California Transportation Department) reports that it supported the new legislation because over 100 trees have been illegally chopped down or “pruned” in the past 10 years. Prior to the passage of this bill, legislation governing this illegal cutting dated from the 1940s and carried only a $100 fine. This fine obviously pales in comparison to the income that is generated by billboards today. The bill was not opposed by the industry overall, since the most egregious cases were perpetrated by only a few offenders. For over a decade Caltrans has issued permits for appropriate tree trimming to enhance visibility of signs and has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with most sign companies in the state. The new law does not limit this long-standing policy.
When authoring the law, legislators believed that the higher fines by themselves may not deter some sign owners. If a billboard face can generate more than $500,000 in advertising income over a five-year period, a fine of $10,000 may be a small price to pay for preserving visibility of the face. Therefore, they made sure the law also provided that illegal tree cutting could be cause for canceling a billboard permit. This is a much more serious provision that will give pause to any irresponsible billboard operators since it can be very difficult to obtain new permits for signs in many jurisdictions.
The new law states in part:
Section 2. Section 730.5 of the Streets and Highways Code is amended to read:
730.5 Any person who by any means, without a permit issued by the department, digs up, cuts down, destroys, prunes, trims, or otherwise injures any tree or shrub on any state highway, rights-of-way, or property shall be liable to a penalty in the sum of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for each tree so damaged and one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each shrub so damaged; and the department, in the name of the people of the State of California, may recover the penalty in an action at law, in a court of competent jurisdiction, together with the costs and expenses, including attorney and expert fees, incurred in the action and the actual costs incurred because of the damage to any tree or shrub on state property.