This visual blight mars our appreciation of the Bay’s scenic beauty, and the Commissioners agreed that this is a fair mitigation for the visual impact of a 25-foot high, half-mile long interchange at Indianola Cutoff. Many of these billboards will also need to be removed to make way for the Coastal Trail, which was also added as a condition of the Caltrans project.
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Billboards were an issue I was introduced to on my first day at Humboldt Baykeeper – we were part of a group researching the ownership and permit status of billboards. Many of the billboards date back to the 1960s, predating the Coastal Act. This meant that although they would likely not be allowed under current regulations, they were “grandfathered” in. Most of these billboards are owned by different entities than the land they stand on. (Billboards advertising the business whose land they are on are called “on-site” billboards, and are regulated differently than these “off-site” billboards.) Billboards along highways are regulated through the Outdoor Advertising Act (ODA), which Caltrans administers. A billboard owner obtains—and maintains—a permit with Caltrans, and pays both the landowner and Caltrans fees in exchange for the right to advertise along the highway.
Along Humboldt Bay, many of the billboards are on public lands, including land managed by the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, City of Arcata, North Coast Rail Authority, and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District. Several are on Caltrans property. Most public agencies have refused payment as a way of asserting that they do not give permission for billboards to be on their property. Caltrans has continued to renew Outdoor Advertising Act permits, despite landowners’ objections.
With the Coastal Commission caveat that billboard removal will be “as feasible,” we will need to support—and possibly push— Caltrans in their effort to remove billboards. Here are a couple of ways we can all help:
- When a billboard blows down in severe weather, document and report it to Humboldt Baykeeper and to the local jurisdiction (City of Arcata, Humboldt County, City of Eureka). A downed billboard may require permits to be re- built. Caltrans has the option at that juncture whether or not to issue an ODA permit for that new billboard.
- As ODA permits expire, we need to ensure that they are not renewed. Watchdogging the status of permits is an important task. Caltrans maintains an inventory online, at www.dot.ca.gov/ oda/updates.htm. Scroll to the bottom of the page for “ODA Inventory”.
And while it is tempting—and frequently joked—that unnamed rogues should sneak out at night with chainsaws to do the job quick and cheap, please don’t engage in illegal and potentially risky behavior. That is, unless you work for one of the public agencies that actually has the right to remove billboards that they don’t consent to from their property—in which case, have at it! We’ll be cheering from the peanut gallery.