Scenic Tennessee—then known as Tennesseans for Scenic Beauty—was incorporated in July 1987, but its origins date back a bit further.
Shortly before Christmas 1985, a Knoxville architect and planner named Gene Burr, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Signage for the Greater Knoxville Beautification Board, mailed a memo to various conservation and beautification groups around the state, calling for a statewide meeting in January 1986 to discuss more effective billboard regulation in Tennessee.
As it happened, the timing of that January meeting coincided with a press conference by Governor Lamar Alexander, announcing the creation of his Cleaner Highways Initiative.
Billboards were still an emerging conservation issue in the 1980s. At issue was so-called visual clutter, the destruction of the viewshed. By the time Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act passed in 1965, the nation was looking more critically at roadside advertising as well as other forms of visual pollution, including litter and unscreened junkyards. A handful of states banned billboards altogether—Hawaii, Vermont and Maine among them—and a growing number of cities. Brentwood, Germantown and Farragut were among the first Tennessee towns to restrict obtrusive signs. In Sevierville, where hundreds of garish tourist signs line Highway 441 into the Smokies, city administrators had erected a small plaque apologizing for the clutter.
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In January 1986, [Republican Governor Lamar] Alexander called a press conference to announce a new administrative measure called Cleaner Highways. Cleaner Highways called for … stricter billboard controls, screened junkyards and uniform “logo signs” at highway exits. … [T]hese measures were immediately drafted into a bill and put into the legislative hopper.
A citizens’ coalition sprang up at once, led by the [the Tennessee Conservation] League and a new group called Tennessseans for Scenic Beauty, an affiliate of the national Coalition for Scenic Beauty. (The groups are now called Scenic Tennessee and Scenic America.) Its members included not only environmental groups but garden clubs, municipal planners, neighborhood organizations, landscape architects and an assortment of tourism-related businesses. …
For three months, volunteers polled voters, distributed fact sheets, met with legislators and even tied yellow ribbons around roadside trees. When Commissioner of Conservation Charles Howell began wearing a yellow tie to work, everyone in the campaign started wearing yellow. The group got free legal advice not only from the national coalition in Washington but also from the Southern Environmental Law Center in Virginia, whose sign-control experts had successfully challenged the First Amendment rights of billboards and other forms of commercial speech.
Cleaner Highways did not pass, however. Though supporters can probably take credit for hastening the use of logo signs, they were no match for the well-financed lobbyists of the billboard industry, especially Lamar Advertising, one of the largest firms in the Southeast. Lamar's sometimes hostile business tactics had been investigated in North Carolina and elsewhere; the Cleaner Highways coalition had often cited those findings as it tried to make its case in Tennessee.
From Sportsmen United: The Story of the Tennessee Conservation League,
by Marge Davis. Reprinted with permission.
Despite their disappointment over Cleaner Highways, the members of Tennesseans for Scenic Beauty did not feel especially defeated. For one thing, they had learned a great deal about the legislative process. For another, they knew they had indeed helped spur the placement of specific service signs (“logo signs”) at highway exits. (TDOT launched its logo-sign program in 1989.) Third, the process had established lasting alliances between TSB and a number of like-minded groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center and Americans for Scenic Beauty (now Scenic America), a national group of which TSB now became the official Tennessee affiliate). Perhaps most important, the group had helped raise public awareness, which is always the first step toward change.
Tennesseans for Scenic Beauty held its first formal meeting in January 1987, with Gene Burr as founding president. In July 1987, it was formally incorporated as a Tennessee not-for-profit corporation under the Tennessee General Corporation Act. Today, though its name has changed and many of its original leaders have moved on or passed on, Scenic Tennessee remains as committed as ever to the cause of "protecting our public views."