Since 2012, 18 billboards along Humboldt Bay have been removed through hard work and advocacy by Keep Eureka Beautiful, Sierra Club, Humboldt Bay Billboard Bye Bye, Humboldt Baykeeper, the City of Arcata, and many others. And on September 15, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve a limited 5-year permit to rebuild a billboard that fell into the Elk River wetlands along Highway 101 last November – after which it must be removed.
Supervisors Wilson and Madrone agreed with the Planning Commission, which denied the permit in May. However, Supervisors Bohn and Fennell supported approving a new permit that would grant the landowner a “vested right,” which doesn’t exist today, since billboards are not allowed except on commercial and industrial lands.
Left in the “miserable middle,” as she calls it, Supervisor Bass pressed for a limited term for the billboard and called for a plan to remove billboards from coastal wetlands and scenic open space. The board eventually settled on 5 years, requiring removal at the end of the term. The landowner still needs Coastal Commission approval before rebuilding this sign.
The Campaign Against Billboard Blight
In 1965, the Highway Beautification Act limited billboards to commercial and industrial lands, and many counties and states eliminated billboards from open space soon after. In Humboldt County, people have opposed billboard blight for decades, fighting over them one at a time.
In 2010, Baykeeper launched its campaign against billboards built in coastal wetlands along Humboldt Bay. Our goals were to clear the way for the Bay Trail and to restore scenic views along Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka. Many of these billboards were on public lands, but a myriad of barriers  prevented their removal despite having no landowner permission. Other billboards were on private property, but violated highway safety laws, local zoning ordinances, and the Public Trust Doctrine.
Lax Enforcement of Billboard Regulations
Our research revealed a tangled web of regulations – most of which were not being enforced. The biggest obstacle to removing billboards turned out to be the failure of the CalTrans Outdoor Advertising Agency to enforce the California Outdoor Advertising Act. Once we shifted our focus, we began to have real success.
Victory at the Coastal Commission
In 2013, CalTrans applied for Coastal Commission approval of the 101 Safety Corridor Project, a plan to build an overpass at Indianola Cutoff. The Humboldt Bay Trail was still a 20-year old dream, and more than 20 billboards blocked scenic views of the bay. In response to public outcry, the Coastal Commission approved the project with caveats: the Bay Trail must be built, and the billboards must be removed to mitigate the scenic impacts of the overpass on former bay wetlands. Local Caltrans staff finally took an interest in the Sacramento-based Outdoor Advertising Agency’s lax enforcement of billboard regulations.
Comprehensive Plan to Eliminate Billboards in Coastal Wetlands and Scenic Areas
County residents have long demanded an end to billboard blight. The 1984 General Plan called for a study that would regulate billboards along scenic routes, but the study was never done. The 2017 General Plan includes several policies regulating billboards, but those policies have not been implemented.
At the September 15 hearing, Supervisor Bass argued for “a comprehensive plan” to remove the remaining old “nonconforming” billboards rather than fighting over them one at a time. We look forward to working to ensure that this long-overdue plan come to fruition. We will keep you informed of opportunities to express your views. To join our email list, send a message to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..