Jennifer Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper
In a first for Humboldt County, the Planning Commission voted 4-2 on May 7 to deny a permit to “reconstruct” a billboard that collapsed along Highway 101 south of Eureka last winter.
Although the billboard will need new footings and uprights, County planners had recommended approval under the guise of “customary maintenance,” since a new billboard would never be allowed under local or state regulations in this location (coastal wetlands along the Elk River).
The billboard was first built in the 1940s, before permitting and zoning existed, but has been completely replaced in the decades since. The sign that toppled is also much larger than the original structure.
People across the U.S. have worked for the past century to rid their roadways of billboards. Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont banned them entirely. In California, the CalTrans Department of Outdoor Advertising is responsible for regulating billboards along highways. Unfortunately, CalTrans does little more than rubber-stamp annual permit renewals on a spreadsheet in Sacramento for the paltry fee of $100 per sign.
Eliminating billboards that pre-date local permitting has been time-consuming and legally challenging. In 1999, the City of Arcata adopted an ordinance requiring permits to repair or “re-erect” damaged billboards, and in 2001, the new ordinance was tested when four billboards were destroyed in a windstorm. Viacom sued and won in local court, but in 2006, the City of Arcata won its appeal, setting an important legal precedent that state law does not preempt municipal ordinances that regulate the rebuilding of billboards that were destroyed by natural forces (Viacom Outdoor, Inc. v. City of Arcata).
The Court found that the state regulation governing “customary maintenance” of billboards does not preempt the City’s ordinance because it applies to “routine upkeep or modest improvements, not to the rebuilding of a billboard after it has been destroyed.”
In 2011, Humboldt Baykeeper launched a campaign to rid Highway 101 of billboards, with a focus on the area between Eureka and Arcata where nearly two dozen billboards stood blocking views of Humboldt Bay. Since then, 18 billboards have been removed, most recently the Chevron sign that was destroyed by wind last November.
Too many people to mention have had a hand in this effort: Keep Eureka Beautiful, the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, North Coast Rail Authority, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District, former Arcata mayor Dave Meserve, an anonymous person with a Sawzall, and even a driver who fell asleep at the wheel. But none played as large a role as the California Coastal Commission, which voted in 2013 to require CalTrans to eliminate these billboards to mitigate the visual impacts of the future Indianola overpass.
This may not be the last we hear of the Elk River billboard, since the sign owner can appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors. But for now, we are celebrating and we would like to thank everyone who wrote emails in opposition to this permit – it really made a difference!
To sign up for opportunities to comment on future billboard decisions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the long history of our fight against on Humboldt Bay, go to https://www.humboldtbaykeeper.org/billboards-on-the-bay.