- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Five miles north of the Antietam National Battlefield stands a billboard marking the front line of a fight over scenic preservation.

There is nothing remarkable about the back-to-back advertisements for cars and financial services. It is the sign’s location along State Highway 65, the two-lane road most visitors take to Antietam, that became a flash point for those bent on preserving the pristine Civil War site.

History buffs, tourism promoters and outdoor advertisers say the dispute in Western Maryland represents a new twist in landscape preservation that might be repeated elsewhere as Civil War marketing expands beyond the battlefields to include the routes that soldiers took.

“Anybody that’s involved in the tourism industry knows that the gateway to a site is very important. You want to have an attractive, welcoming transition to whatever site you’re promoting, so protecting those gateways is important, too,” said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Washington-based Civil War Preservation Trust.

More than 7,600 acres of private land around Antietam are protected from development by landowner sales of agricultural and scenic easements to government agencies and private groups, according to the National Park Service.

The Highway 65 billboard isn’t visible from the battlefield, and its setting is barely rural. It stands on a strip of commercial land between some industrial property and the road. Across the highway, on what recently was farmland, 773 homes are going up in the new Westfields subdivision — the southern edge of Hagerstown’s accelerating sprawl.

Still, opponents feared that the billboard, erected in the summer after a fight, would become the first in a procession of signs tourists would see after exiting Interstate 70 and heading south through toward Antietam.

“Starting to put billboards on 65 destroys the rural and scenic entrance to the battlefield,” said George Anikis, a Washington County planning commissioner. “You’ll have people coming off 70 and being treated similar to those people who want to go to Gettysburg. Gettysburg is trashed. They just don’t set you up for being in a rural area.”

Last month, the Board of County Commissioners approved rules capping the number of billboards at the current level of about 200 and prohibiting new signs along county-designated scenic or historic routes, including Highway 65. New billboards are allowed only in industrial and commercial zones, and only to replace signs removed from other areas.

The county’s decision reflects a compromise. Critics wanted an outright ban and removal of all signs in Washington County; billboard owners lobbied for the “cap and replace” provision.

Still, Douglas Wright Jr., president of Advertising Inc., which has about 100 billboards in the county, said the ordinance would hurt his company “because everybody likes to grow their business, and that will not be allowed for us in the future.”

The ordinance specifically bars new billboards along nine roads identified as Civil War heritage routes in a state-supported tourism development plan. Most of those roads are marked with red-white-and-blue roadside signs featuring a distinctive red bugle logo identifying them as Civil War Trails under a separate, regional tourism project that also includes highways in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

The signs, directing travelers to lesser-known sites, were conceived 10 years ago by Virginia Civil War Trails, a Richmond-based group that works with public tourism planners at the state and local level.

The trails project isn’t a preservation program, but Executive Director Mitch Bowman said it has boosted landscape-protection efforts in unexpected ways. For example, he said, much of the 104-mile route Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee took in his retreat to Appomattox was nominated for state scenic byway status after it became a Civil War Trail. New billboards are banned along scenic byways.

The fight to keep billboards off the road to Antietam “sounds to me like another kind of unforeseen spinoff of how the trail has become a catalyst for preservation,” Mr. Bowman said.

Neither he nor Mr. Campi would go so far as to say that billboards don’t belong on Civil War routes. Mr. Bowman said billboards can help tourism.

But Mr. Campi said his group has negotiated the removal of at least one billboard, near Fisher’s Hill Battlefield in Virginia.

“Our ultimate goal is to protect the viewshed,” the landscape visible from the battlefield, he said. “Antietam is the best, if not one of the best-preserved, battlefields in the country. The viewshed is unlike any other battlefield, probably in the country, so anything that further enhances that we would be very supportive of.”

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