The Coastal Commission’s Sept. 12 decision to give the go ahead for Caltrans’ 101 Safety Corridor Project requires removal of all billboards along the bay shore between Eureka and Arcata. Shortly after, CBS Outdoor — the company that owns these billboards — had its attorneys threaten legal action if billboard removal doesn’t come with a big payoff. Now Caltrans is trying to claim it will be too costly to remove the billboards (“Sticker shock,” Times-Standard, Nov. 23, Page A1). There’s more to the story than what Caltrans tells us.
1. Eight billboards were permanently removed as a condition of Caltrans’ Alton Interchange in 2008. The Coastal Commission required billboard removal to mitigate visual impacts of the new highway interchange, which is similar to the interchange proposed at Indianola Cutoff. Certainly the shoreline of Humboldt Bay is at least as scenic as the Alton area! Indeed, it was formally designated by the County as a Coastal View Area in the 1980s.
2. Many of the billboards along Humboldt Bay are on public lands, and landowner permission for them to be there was revoked years ago. The North Coast Rail Authority, Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District have been working to remove billboards from lands under their jurisdiction along the Humboldt Bay shoreline for years. For over a decade, public agencies have refused payment as a way of asserting that they do not give permission for billboards to be on their property. Despite this, Caltrans has continued to renew Outdoor Advertising Act billboard permits. These permits — which are issued by Caltrans — require written evidence of landowner’s consent, and yet Caltrans continues to renew the permits against the landowners’ wishes. Caltrans enables the billboard companies to reap profits from advertisers while not paying rent to be on our public lands.
3. Reported violations of the Outdoor Advertising Act, known as the ODA, along the 101 Corridor have not been enforced by Caltrans. One billboard’s permit on railroad property was revoked in 2012, yet it still stands due to lack of enforcement by Caltrans. In contrast, in 2010 Caltrans charged the Environmental Protection Information Center with three violations of the ODA for erecting a billboard opposing Caltrans’ Richardson Grove widening project. Other billboards on this stretch of 101 are within the Caltrans right-of-way, a potential safety hazard and a clear violation of the terms of the ODA. Yet Caltrans has refused to take action to rectify these situations.
Rather than complaining about their highest estimates of cost, Caltrans should work toward complying with the condition of billboard removal by immediately enforcing the laws for which they are responsible and revoking the billboards’ ODA permits where the landowner has canceled consent. At the very least, Caltrans should stop renewing these permits against the landowners’ wishes, and take enforcement action against billboards that are in violation of the ODA.
Caltrans should work with state and federal agencies – not to mention the general public — that want these billboards removed. They are a blight on Humboldt Bay, and many are occupying tidelands, which are by law to be managed for the public interest — not for the profit of a billboard company. Many of these same billboards will need to be removed to make way for the Bay Trail between Arcata and Eureka — another condition that the public will be sure to hold Caltrans accountable for meeting when it applies for permits in 2016.
Few if any of these billboards have ever been issued permits other than ODA permits from Caltrans. It shouldn’t require a taxpayer buyout for Caltrans to simply enforce the regulations that they are responsible for enforcing. Caltrans should act immediately to remove these advertisements rather than continuing to defend the billboard companies’ use of public lands for private profit.
Jennifer Kalt is Policy Director for Humboldt Baykeeper, a nonprofit organization working to safeguard our coastal resources for the health, enjoyment, and economic strength of the Humboldt Bay community through education, scientific research, and enforcement of laws to fight pollution.