Chain Saw Massacre

Helen Brock momentarily ponders poet Ogden Nash's Song of the Open Road, then, in a soft Oklahoma drawl, repeats it haltingly.

"I think that I shall never see
A billboard as lovely as a tree.
Perhaps unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all."

For the past few decades, Brock has been waging a private campaign to protect the trees around her Phoenix home from being cut down to provide unobstructed views of billboards.

Until this year, she thought the only threat to the spotty supply of shade and green on her beleaguered Phoenix block came from Eller Media, the owner of an immense billboard that looms over her property, on the north frontage road of the Maricopa Freeway near 12th Street.

But early last January 6, she was awakened by the alarming buzz of chain saws chewing into about a dozen trees across the street from her house. The trees, a mix of mature eucalyptus -- some 50 and 60 feet tall -- mesquite and paloverde, were on the state-owned freeway embankment between 12th Street and 10th Street. They'd been green and healthy the day before, pluming shade across the frontage road to the doorstep of her family's auto repair shop. But now they were being cut down.

To Brock, who heads the beautification committee in the Barrios Unidos neighborhood of central Phoenix, the logging operation was more than a little suspicious.

The tree-cutters told Brock they'd been hired by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Their operation, it turned out, wasn't confined to the patch of green in front of her house. The crew was removing trees from both sides of the freeway, from 16th Street clear around the Durango curve.

Although the tree crew pointed to ADOT, Brock suspected Eller might have something to do with the cutting.

"They'd been complaining about those trees for years," she said recently. "They even tried to get me to cut my own trees, just so people could see their damned signs from the freeway, but I wouldn't do it."

It turns out she was right. Although top Eller executives and ADOT officials wouldn't talk to New Times about what happened to the trees in Brock's neighborhood, state legislators and others who made inquiries found that ADOT has a special deal with Eller to eliminate trees that obstruct Eller's billboards along Arizona roads. The state does so without consulting nearby property owners or the elected officials who represent them.

ADOT won't tell the state legislators how long the agency has been letting Eller call the shots on freeway landscaping near its signs.

But it's clear the company has worked hard over the years to sway state officials and policies.

"Eller has a big stick in this state, real big," says David Merkel, attorney for the Arizona League of Cities and Towns and former Tempe city attorney, who has worked to reduce the statewide spread of billboards.

The same can be said of the man who heads the firm, Karl Eller. The former chief of the Circle K Corporation, he founded the Karl Eller Center for the Study of the Free Enterprise Economy at the University of Arizona in the early 1980s, and later its business school was named after him.

His company has grown in the past 15 years by gobbling up other outdoor-sign outfits, becoming the second largest in the nation, with about 125,000 boards scattered in 38 cities. It's now a subsidiary of San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, one of the world's larger media conglomerates.

Eller and his executives routinely contribute the maximum allowed to the political campaigns of high-ranking state officials, generally Republican candidates.

Those contributions have paid off. In the past 15 years, Eller Media and other billboard concerns have successfully fought municipal attempts to restrict and remove nonconforming and illegal signs by convincing elected state lawmakers to pass circumventing legislation.

Last year, Arizona passed an industry-sponsored bill that reduces the amount of time cities and towns have to prosecute the owners of illegal billboards. The bill also transferred judicial authority over such matters from municipal to state Superior Court. And several years ago, Eller and other billboarders pushed through legislation that exempted billboards from municipal codes requiring outdoor signs to be taken down whenever the land beneath them is developed. All of these statutes are aimed at stalling municipal efforts to control or eliminate what local officials characterize as "billboard blight."

Phoenix alone has about 2,000 billboards, far more than other cities in the Valley. The chief reason they've lasted in an age of electronic advertising is that they continue to be cash cows. Each side of the board above Brock's property goes for $4,000 to $4,500 a month.