The little guys win

It all started with a breakfast meeting at the Heidi’s near Park Lane Mall sometime late in the winter of 2000. The Reno City Council had appointed a billboard subcommittee, and the folks at this meeting were concerned that the billboard industry was going to get whatever it wanted, even if it made the city, well, uglier.

The group voiced their concerns, pleading for the city to limit the number of billboards.

“We felt like they were shining us on,” says Doug Smith, who was one member of that small group that would become Citizens for a Scenic Reno in March 2000.

A mere 15 months later, that small group is a force. Last week, the now 200-member group with a 13-member board of directors decided to change its name to Citizens for a Scenic Northern Nevada, to make the group more accountable to those in Sparks and the outlying areas.

It’s been one helluva 15 months for Smith, the chair of CFASNN, and his compadres. Frustrated by the lack of support from the billboard subcommittee, they launched a successful petition drive to get an initiative on the Reno ballot to ban all new billboards within the city of Reno.

The billboard industry, sensing a potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue during the coming decades, launched a petition drive of its own, seeking to get a competing question on the ballot. After public criticism, the billboard industry dropped that effort and chose to fight Citizens for a Scenic Reno’s efforts via the courtroom and a massive advertising campaign—which ridiculously claimed, among other things, that thousands of jobs would be lost if the question, R-1, passed.

The industry spent upwards of $250,000 to defeat R-1. Citizens for a Scenic Reno spent just more than $3,200. R-1 passed in November with 57 percent of the vote.

“We took the high road, and I think they shot themselves in the foot,” says Smith, who has basically given up his career as a safety presentations specialist to dedicate his time, unpaid, to CFASNN.

The legal squabbles continue, however. A lawsuit to overturn R-1 is now in the hands of the Nevada Supreme Court, after a district court ruling upheld the ballot initiative.

As far as Citizens for a Scenic Reno were concerned, the wins kept coming. Assemblywoman Vivian Freeman, D-Sparks, sponsored a bill, supported by Scenic Reno, in the 2001 Legislature that requires government buildings to allow petitioners a place to gather signatures, following the problems that Citizens for a Scenic Reno and the unsuccessful Recall Reno group had getting signatures at what were supposed to be public buildings. It passed overwhelmingly.

And that little group that started during a breakfast at Heidi’s keeps on going. In addition to the quest against billboard blight, the group is planning on fighting for scenic-highways-and-byways designations for some of Nevada’s more beautiful routes and is planning on a campaign to discourage the construction of free-standing cell phone towers in favor of more aesthetically pleasant designs.

“Our mission is to preserve, protect and enhance the scenic character of Northern Nevada,” he says.

The group is also lending support to efforts outside the Truckee Meadows, including a fight against billboards near Mound House and the formation of Scenic Nevada, a group primarily focused on Southern Nevada that started, in part, following the encouraging success of CFASNN.

It just goes to show you that even in a place like Nevada, where so few control so much power, the little guys can still win sometimes.

"All of a sudden, people are awake that we don’t have to just go along," Smith says.