Why Do We Have Roadside Landscape Regulations?
Why have rules for something as benevolent as a roadside landscape enhancement?
Safety is the first priority, so your plans for any encroachment on a public right of way will need to be checked to make sure the clear zone, or recovery zone for errant drivers, is kept free of fixed objects. You typically have to submit an application and your proposed landscape plan sheets for government review before doing any enhancement project.
It is amazing the variety of proposals and project expectations that people propose for public roadsides! Some local governments simply want to mow the area near their city or county more often. Progressive leadership classes often use beautification projects as their final service venture. Community improvement districts want to transform major entrances to retail and business districts into a look that encourages economic development. A local government may want to establish a welcome sign focal point to draw travelers into their areas. Major government partners may want to build special toll roadways with structural embellishments as part of the new roadside landscape. Vegetative mitigation may be an environmental requirement for a road construction projects.
Any landscape encroachment on public rights of way involves people and equipment adjacent to moving traffic, which can be dangerous and involve liability if someone gets hurt. Regulations are created to provide for accountability and responsible activity. It’s good stewardship for taxpayers like you and me.
Review of proposed vegetation is different than what you would see for proposed buildings and structures. Landscapes change and grow, so the review must take into account the proposed plant material and its mature size. Some tree trunks can grow to 3 feet in diameter, so the typical 1 ½ -foot minimum lateral offset for fixed, inanimate objects cannot be used in the same way as the minimum lateral offset for a newly planted tree.
Motivations for activity on the rights of way varies, too. Some groups see trees and shrubs on public rights of way as a nuisance. They want the roadsides to act as an open canvas for advertising and business signs, so they would prefer every tree or tall shrub be removed from one right of way fence on one side of the road to the right of way fence on the other side of the road. Some people think a beautiful landscape consists of nothing but acres of closely-mowed turf grass. There are roadway engineers that think the safest roadways are ones cleared of every tree. It is important to remember that maintaining tree-less rights of way is extremely expensive and would easily use up every tax dollar available. If costs to provide herbicide treatments and frequent mowing are included for the entire linear stretches and widths of the roadways, costs would be astronomical. Most importantly, tree-less roadways are just plain ugly and unpleasant.
Government requirements need to avoid special treatment for any single individual, group, or business. Special treatment, is an unconstitutional gratuity, meaning, it is unfair. For this reason, removal of trees for sign or business visibility (daylighting) is typically not allowed. Permit applicants, however, are often permitted to remove trees as a result of construction for access driveways, and can sometimes remove trees that have grown to obscure billboards, as long as they follow proper protocol and mitigate for the lost green space with fees equal to the value of the trees removed.
Visual continuity, with stretches of unmanaged woods and undulating turf areas at the edge of the road, is essential for keeping our public roadsides beautiful. Pretty roadsides are important to the majority of people who travel in vehicles. Unfortunately, most of those people don’t have the time to fight political battles to prevent damaging vegetation removal or irresponsible planting from taking place. They rightly expect government regulations and reasonable policies to do that for them.
So, that’s it. We have regulations to keep the roadsides safe and pretty, without costing too much.