A little after 3:30 p.m. Monday, the billboard’s geriatric skeleton—30 feet wide, 16 feet high, the belch and breadth of its visual pollution over the years immeasurable—crashed down. It was sawed off at its roots. It was pulled down by ropes, by Flagler County commissioners, by members of the Scenic A1A Pride committee and Friends of A1A, and by an effort 20 years in the making. An effort that culminated in June as the commission ratified a deal that by the end of 2016 will have removed up to 10 of 26 billboards along A1A.
No one said a prayer for the carcass. The 50-odd people who’d gathered for the occasion cheered and applauded instead. Drivers up and down A1A, which got its Scenic Byway designation in 2002, may have gaped as the monstrosity came down: as common a sight as billboards are in Florida, it’s not an exaggeration to say that for most Floridians, seeing one actually come down may be as rare as catching Halley’s comet.
So Bill Brinton–the Jacksonville attorney, anti-billboard crusader, former board member and current attorney of Scenic America, the national organization that battles billboard and other visual blight—wasn’t exaggerating when he told the crowd: “I will forever remember this day, as again we all should remember this day. Mark it down in your calendars, tell your children and grandchildren about it. This is a great day for Flagler County, it’s a great day for these county commissioners.” Just four states have banned billboards altogether: Maine, Vermont, Hawaii and Alaska. Florida is a very long way from a ban. But local efforts have made occasional gains.
Brinton then presented the commissioners with an Excellence in Leadership award from Scenic America “for everything you’ve done, everything you will do in the future,” he said. “And I do believe we will see more and more awards in the years to come for what you’ve been working on for two decades and will continue to work on for the years ahead.”
Standing to the side were the two deal-makers, who didn’t speak: Craig Coffey, the county administrator, and Jim Cullis, who owns the billboards, and watched what would normally have been his roadside cash cow cash it in for good. He was calm. He was even smiling at times. Cullis, a developer—he developed Grand Haven, for example—survived the Crash of 2008. It wasn’t going to take much to survive this one. Besides, he’s not exactly getting a bad end of the deal: The county commission agreed to pay him $140,000 in public dollars for his billboards, and let him still use eight of them for three more years before they’re eliminated.
“I get to keep them for three years and I get some of my money back, so everybody wins,” he said. “And I live on A1A, so I don’t mind seeing them go down.”
Even the massive billboard at the intersection of A1A and Camino del Mar, at the entrance of Hammock Dunes—the ugliest one of them all, given its size and prominence as a marker to one of Palm Coast’s entrances—will be gone, but not for another three years. “We’ve been after this for 30 years, another three years isn’t going to kill us,” Coffey said.
In the deal Coffey and Cullis worked out, and that the county commission ratified, Cullis got $12,500 for each of four large billboards along A1A and $7,500 for four smaller ones. He got nothing for two additional billboards. And he got $60,000 for a billboard along I-95, which the county will retain and use for its own advertising down the line, to promote either tourism or economic development. The $80,000 that went toward the A1A billboards was public money, but not tax revenue: rather, the money came out of the close-out fund of the Hammock Dunes Development of Regional Impact—money paid by the developer. The $60,000 for the I-95 billboard was a combination of general fund tax dollars (out of the economic development pot) and tourism tax dollars (out of the bed surtax mostly paid by visitors).
It was a creative way to achieve what previously had been thought unachievable: the use of public dollars to remove billboards.
“Take notice, take notice state of Florida of Flagler County,” Brinton said. “They’re providing the leadership and the goals of what you should be, we should all be, up in Duval or wherever, maybe especially in Miami, should be looking to accomplish.”
Brinton had book-ended his remarks between the first words written in English from the New World and the last public words spoken by Charles Kuralt, the CBS correspondent and far-flung traveler of America’s byways, which he happened to have spoken in an address to Scenic America less than two months before he died in 1997.
Those first words had been written by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, envoys of Sir Walter Raleigh, in a 1584 dispatch to Queen Elizabeth from Roanoke Island, describing the place, with characteristic capital letters for every word, as “the Goodliest Land Under the Cope of Heaven.” Monday afternoon Brinton attached those words to Flagler County. Then he closed on Kuralt’s optimism: “We do need legislation. But the way it’s going to have to be done place by place, and one place after another by the people who live there,” Kuralt had said. “Ordinary Americans, I am persuaded of this with all my heart,” Kural;t had said, “ordinary Americans want a beautiful country. We are proud of the amber waves of grain and the purple mountains majesties. And we are not powerless. We can have, we really can, the land Amadas and Barlowe had seen — the Goodliest Land Under the Cope of Heaven.”
Somewhere in the universe, Edward Abbey is smiling.