Sunday, September 22, 2013

Peter Bauer: Homage to the 1924 Sign Law

billboards-AAThe 1924 sign law that effectively banned billboards throughout the Adirondack Park shows how our forbearers were braver, wiser, and more prescient than we are today.

It was a bold decision that resulted, by some accounts, in the removal of over 1,400 billboards. In the Adirondack Park this law largely prevented an assault of rooftop and roadside billboards that dominate broad stretches of the U.S. – the cluttered strips of Anywhere USA.

Without the sign law the travel routes through major and minor Adirondack hamlets would have surely been despoiled by advertising of every size and shape imaginable. The sign law has largely limited such activities to the interior of a few hamlet areas.

The law demonstrates an early recognition that the Adirondack Park was a special landscape in New York, a landscape well worth preserving for its scenic and aesthetic qualities. It also showed that we could take special actions to manage that special landscape.

Weeks 1924 Sign Law BillboardsThe 1924 law, signed by Governor Al Smith (who also purchased the summit of Mount Marcy), was one of the first acts that sought to integrate the private lands of the Adirondacks with the public Forest Preserve lands. The Adirondack Park was created in 1892 and the Forest Preserve made forever wild in 1894, and reaffirmed importantly in 1915. Yet the 1924 sign law was the only effort that sought to connect public and private lands in the Adirondack Park until 1968 when Governor Rockefeller appointed the Temporary Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, which led to the passage of the Adirondack Park Agency Act  in 1972.

Here’s the relevant text of the law, which stands remarkably unchanged after all these years, from section 9-0305 of the Environmental Conservation Law, entitled “Signs and advertising in Adirondack and Catskill parks”:

In order to conserve the natural beauty of the Adirondack and Catskill parks, to preserve and regulate the said parks for public use for the resort of the public for recreation, pleasure, air, light and enjoyment, to keep them open, safe, clean, and in  good order for the welfare of society, and to protect and conserve the investment of the state in forest lands, campsites and other interests in real property in said parks, no person shall erect or maintain within the boundaries  thereof any advertising sign, advertising structure or device of any kind, except under written permit from the department. The provisions of this section shall not apply to signs erected or maintained upon a parcel of real property in connection with the principal business or principal businesses conducted thereon and which advertise such business or businesses only, or to signs within the limits of an incorporated village.

This law is the reason that, when driving north on the Northway, the billboards disappear after Exit 20. It’s the reason that driving Route 28 from the west, the miles of billboards advertising all things Old Forge abruptly end when you hit the Blue Line.

NYSA_14297-87_2305-fullI remember arguing with friends over dinner years back that the new digital age where smart phones are ubiquitous could provide a great opportunity to clean up the American landscape as billboards would become advertising dinosaurs and would be largely obsolete, igniting more indignation and enmity than curiosity. In effect all that advertising could now be carried around in  people’s pockets. Wow, did I ever get that one wrong. The new digital age has spawned bigger electrified digital billboards advertising multiple customers and messages.

We should all be grateful that the sign law was passed in 1924 because it’s something that makes sense for the Adirondack Park, yet is also something that we’d never see passed today. Just imagine the public debate today around a ban on billboards in the Adirondack Park. Imagine the complaints from elected officials or the Local Government Review Board or the Glens Falls Post Star. Imagine the testimonies that communities and businesses are dependent upon those signs and sign removal would threaten the local economy. Imagine the ridicule about those little signs against the backdrop of the big wilderness.

Were it not for the 1924 sign law the Adirondack landscape would be dotted by the thousands with billboards. The scenic beauty of the Adirondack Park is one of the great economic assets that we have. The scenic beauty of Park roads always ranks high in tourism surveys. The scenic beauty of the Park’s travel corridors set the Adirondack landscape apart and the prohibition of billboards plays a big part in preserving our scenic beauty.

For the 1924 sign law, like Forever Wild and the APA Act, we owe a great debt to those who were braver and wiser than we are today and who saw clearly a moment in time when action was needed.

Illustrations: Above, billboards just outside the Adirondack Park; middle, in 1925 Schroon Lake realtor Charles Weeks opposed the sign law and threatened to sue (Ticonderoga Sentinel); and below, one of the many signs on Route 9 near Pottersville targeted by the 1924 Law (NYS Archives Photo). 


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Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks. He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He was the co-founder of the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) in 1998, which has collected long-term water quality data on more than 75 Adirondack lakes and ponds. He has testified before the State Legislature, successfully advocated to pass legislation and budget items, authored numerous articles, op-eds, and reports such as "20% in 2023: An Assessment of the New York State 30 by 30 Act" (2023), "The Adirondack Park and Rural America: Economic and Population Trends 1970-2010" (2019), "The Myth of Quiet, Motor-free Waters in the Adirondack Park" (2013), and "Rutted and Ruined: ATV Damage on the Adirondack Forest Preserve" (2003) and "Growth in the Adirondack Park: Analysis of Rates and Patterns of Development" (2001). He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve. Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife, has two grown children out in the world, and enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Threads.

33 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Peter, doesn’t the Wild Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act prevent signs of a certain size without an APA permit even within Hamlets in the Adirondack? Yet there are many signs which I think exceed these size restrictions that I am guessing are erected without a permit in these areas?

    I think that folks even now are wise enough to support similar laws. I have seen it in municipalities here in the finger lakes?

  2. John says:

    I am quite thankful for this law! Strangely enough, I just returned home to Pennsylvania from 5 wonderful days exploring the thousands of roadside treasures for any camera lens to find. I am thankful for the bucket full of megapixels one can effortlessly fill that will be void of billboards. Oddly enough, I commented on the fact that there are no billboards and wondered if they were banned? The only other place I am aware of that bans billboards is Hawaii. I wished billboards were banned everywhere! If you think about it, they do insult the intelligence of man. They provide nothing a man couldn’t extract from a stop at a visitor center chocked full of friendly advice and detailed maps & brochures. Thank you so much for writing about this law.

  3. Paul says:

    Can’t we just disguise the bill boards as giant pine trees?

    What you really need to do is figure out a way to bury all the wires. Even without billboards the roads are not very scenic anyway.

    One of the best things we have done is the way we submerge many of the power lines near the lakes. My camp looks a lot better than my house without the ugly power line coming in from the street.

  4. Will Doolittle says:

    It’s funny, because I think the two signs in your first photo and the one in your second photo look great. Is it really so bad to have billboard advertising along roads? This isn’t an environmental issue. Wooden signs along a road don’t harm the environment. It’s an aesthetic issue. Some people — like you, Peter — prefer to see the forest from inside their rolling, polluting cage of metal and plastic (known as a car) without the intervention of colorful, cultural markers. While riding on blacktop at 65 mph, spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, it’s important to you and others not to have your view of trees impeded by colorful signs. OK. Personally, I like billboards and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

    • ADK voter says:

      Pathetically predictable and classic Will Doolittle- taking a contrarian position to anything that hints of protecting our natural environment. If it wasn’t so obstructionist, it might be somewhat funny. Thank God he doesn’t live in the Park.

  5. dave says:

    You actually “like” billboards? As in, you are not saying they don’t bother you, that you can ignore or see past them, you are saying you actually like seeing them?

    How odd. But hey, I guess everyone has their thing.

    Anyway, even if you really do have a thing for billboards – and were not just trying to be contradictory because the article took a shot at your newspaper – you have the ability to see thousands and thousands of billboards all throughout the rest of the state and all across the country.

    I’m thankful that the early Adirondack visionaries recognized that there is value in offering a different experience than that which can be had while traveling around the rest of America.

    • Paul says:

      There is a great billboard on 95 through some part of Connecticut. It is for an exterminator (I think?). It has this giant 3D kind of fly on the billboard. That one I really do like. Given that most places don’t restrict billboards I would have to guess that most people probably feel the same way as Will?

      This is a tricky one. The Adirondacks (and especially many green groups) want to see the focus of the economy be tourism. Tourist places are where billboards seem to be most widely used? How many of those South of the Border ads are there on 95? It must be a thousand!

  6. Will Doolittle says:

    It’s not odd at all to like billboards, Dave, and Peter’s mild little aside about The Post-Star was nothing, especially by his standards. Billboards have lots of fans, as do signs of all sorts. Numerous books have been dedicated to billboard art and other roadside advertising. As well as being artistic and entertaining, roadside advertising such as billboards often become iconic representations of the esthetic of an era.

  7. Will,

    Your first post is a stretch – even for you.

    Not sure how you extract a “preference” for how it is that I like to view the forest from this piece.

    A basic rule of journalism is that you should make an effort to get your facts straight before you distort them.

    Just so you know, my preferred view of the forest is when I’m surrounded by it when I hike or hunt. I’m lucky because I get to walk in some beautiful forests almost everyday, whether on the north end of French Mountain or in the Berry Pond tract around Lake George or when I’m in Blue Mountain Lake.

    Also, I drive really slow; hardly ever get up to 65 mph. On Adirondack roads, I’m the guy driving 48 mph.

    But, your choice to distort the discussion affirms one of my points: we’d never get this law passed today.

    I maintain, however, that the protection of the scenic beauty of the Adirondack landscape is very important, whether enjoyed from a mountaintop, lake surface or from the highway, among other places.

    The ban on billboards has helped protect the Adirondack Park’s scenic beauty and for that I’m grateful to our forbearers for their prescience.

    Also, Will, just turn south out of Glens Falls on the Northway and you can get all the billboard watching you want. Heck, drive anywhere except the Park and you can view plenty of billboards.

    But, if it’s billboard art that you seek, the Adirondacks is not the place to go.

    • Paul says:

      This is a big aside but why 48? Where did that number come from?

      Sign question for you all. I was driving by the Visitors Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths over the weekend. The sign reads (at least the part you can read even if you are going 48) “VIC” in big letters.

      How in the world is some guy driving in that way from Canada going to know that this is a place where he can learn about the park? This is supposed to be a gateway. A place where you can stop and get information that cannot be plastered on billboards.

  8. Will Doolittle says:

    Only you, Peter, would say that characterizing billboard-viewing as something you, or anyone else, does from inside a car as “a stretch.” And if you’re usually going 48 on the Northway, which, as you say, is where a lot of billboards are placed (outside the Adirondacks), then that is odd.
    Yes, I do think most people view billboards from inside their cars, and very few do it from “mountaintop” or “lake surface”.
    And I do think it’s funny to be complaining, from an environmentalist point of view, about something that is viewed while engaging in an activity — driving — far more injurious to the environment than anything to do with billboards.

  9. Duane says:

    I can see the billboard now… “An Almost Civil Debate”

  10. Wally says:

    Just came back from Pennsylvania where billboards and signs are common. They create a cluttered look, hinder viewing much that the state has to offer, and even distract drivers. But maybe, having lived in VT for 30 years, I am just not used to them. I agree that burying wires would be great.

  11. Peter Bauer says:


    Really? In your world one cannot simultaneously drive a car and appreciate a scenic and uncluttered and beautiful landscape?

    And, one cannot drive a car and pay tribute to our forbearers who acted boldly and presciently and helped to preserve a piece, only 20%, of the NYS landscape from billboards and ads? Really?

    There’s no irony. Most of us drive cars. Most of us who live in the Adirondacks drive a lot as it’s a fact of life here for work and play. For my work I frequently drive 2 hours or more one way to a meeting. That’s the way it goes.

    (Public service announcement: iTunes U is great for downloading all sorts of free lectures via podcast to listen to while driving long distances — David Blight’s course on the Civil War is really good.)

    But, thankfully, driving in the Park frequently provides tremendous views, much different from many other parts of NYS or the northeast, even when seen through a windshield. The light, seasons, weather — all help to never make these views dull. I get into the woods plenty, but I still enjoy great views uncluttered by billboards while driving in a car around the Adirondack Park.

    And, I’m grateful to those that acted to prohibit billboard clutter in the Adirondack Park. It’s been a great success.

  12. Avon says:

    The dueling opinions between Will D. and Peter B. have reached the point where a reader has either quit reading or started laughing. OK, so you disagree, already!!

    But hey – how about the idea that you might possibly BOTH be smart guys with some good ideas? Here are some points on which you both might well contribute usefully:

    In Brooklyn NYC, many or most billboards are either retro or “camp,” or are outright works of art rather than advertising anything – and most people are intrigued or entertained to see them. They actually ridicule ads, if you want to put your finger on why people like them. They also tend to be creative. A wooden sign like the old Rodeo ad in the photo could be art or entertainment today – no more offensive than Stagecoach Rock, if the quantity is limited.

    I certainly don’t want to see huge illuminated gas-station signs, chain-retailer logos, decrepit “MOT L” billboards, and many other kinds of sign. I doubt Will is saying he wants his sunsets and starry nights dotted with lighted Mobil logos either. Remember, the law is not the Billboard Law; it’s the Sign Law. Yet we all want some signs. I doubt Peter is saying we should take down every “28” from Old Forge to Warrensburg.

    There will be a lot less disagreement around here if we start getting specific about how far is too far. Sure, we’re all individuals and opinions may vary. But posting only the diametrically opposed pet peeves and personal parries won’t help. It’ll bore us – or make us laugh at you.

  13. Will Doolittle says:

    You are right, sir!
    In the spirit you have brought to the debate, let me admit right now I see Peter’s point. It is beautiful to drive through beautiful forests and mountains and waterfalls and so on. The drive off Exit 30 up to Lake Placid is one of the most glorious in the world, in my limited experience of the world, and that is because of the surpassing natural beauty.
    I agree with you, Avon, there is room for both viewpoints. Surely, many people, including me, can admit that unspoiled nature is a wonderful thing, and so are campy billboards sometimes, although not in the same sublime way.
    And, finally, yes, it is a bit precious and ridiculous to make the argument I’ve been making, about the irony of polluting while you appreciate nature, because that is the reality of our existence, as Peter says, and pointing it out is peevish.

  14. Will Doolittle says:

    And why did I assume you are a sir? Sorry if that is incorrect.

  15. Paul says:

    Yes, the law does not say that you cannot put up a sign for advertising something it just says that you need a permit for the sign. Is that really much different than in other places? What are the conditions for a permit?

  16. “Imagine the complaints from elected officials or the Local Government Review Board”

    Eh, never mind what the people elected to represent us would want. Seems to be a recurring theme on this blog.


  17. Ray says:

    This law was such a good idea that Vermont copied it only 4 decades later.

  18. Duane says:

    It should be noted that Adirondack local governments that have zoning/site plan review (which would encompass the majority of the private populated areas of Adirondack) have signage laws that limit the size/type/lighting/materials used etc. of signs in their jurisdiction. Billboards would be banned in most parts of the Adirondacks under local laws. Why not talk about this? (Ah yes, someone would bring up the potential of grandfathering to prove a partisan point.)

  19. Charlie S says:

    Will Doolittle says: Is it really so bad to have billboard advertising along roads? This isn’t an environmental issue. Wooden signs along a road don’t harm the environment. It’s an aesthetic issue.

    In Latham recently I observed,as I passed each morning, the tearing down of some half a dozen,or more,stately trees in a wooded lot on the east end of Rt 9. It didn’t make sense to me why they would tear down such beautiful trees….until I saw a huge billboard go up.Beautiful trees taken down just so consumer Joe and Mary could know which corporate entity to shop at next. How pitifully sad we are. You’re wrong Doolittle when you say there’s no harm to the environment.

    • Paul says:

      I think you mean “Joe six pack” and “Sally House Coat”. Cutting down a few trees like they probably cut down to build the house you live in Charlie S. and mine. Okay for you and me???

  20. Charlie S says:

    Will Doolittle says: It’s not odd at all to like billboards, Dave, and Peter’s mild little aside about The Post-Star was nothing, especially by his standards. Billboards have lots of fans, as do signs of all sorts.

    Football and baseball players,ie..millionaire entertainers,have lots of fans too Doolittle,many of whom fill stadiums like pack rats and act and dress like fools cheering on their idols.I’ll never understand the mentality.Tree’s are so much more appealing than billboards any day of the week.To think otherwise can only mean one thing…. how small some people’s minds can really be.

  21. Will Doolittle says:

    Charlie: Geez. Really?

  22. Charlie S says:

    I live in a house that was constructed over a hundred years ago Paul.I like a roof over my head and I like trees and what can I say! When stately trees are taken down just so a billboard can go up…..that’s sad Paul.John Mayall wrote a song called The Sensitive Kind.Many people will never relate to that title…i’m not one of them.

  23. Charlie S says:

    I wouldn’t josh you Will.

  24. […] Adirondack Almanack: Homage to the 1924 Sign Law […]

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