Posted 1/3/14

Note: this column appeared in the Dec. 11, 2013 Mad River Union. – Ed.

When I read that Caltrans estimates the cost of removing the billboards along U.S. Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka at $2 million, my first thought was “Bleep, I know guys who would do it for a can of gas for their chainsaw and a six pack.”

My second thought was that if the fight goes on long enough, climate change will take care of the problem for us. I commuted between the two cities from 1990 to 1994, and during that time, a massive wind storm toppled several of them into matchsticks.

I also reflected that various levels of government have supposedly been getting rid of them since the Johnson Administration. A quick search revealed that one of the components of the Highway Beautification Act, passed and signed in 1965, was the removal of most advertising signs and regulation of the remainder. I don’t know how that’s working in most places, but it has clearly failed here.

Most of the billboards on that stretch of highway belong to CBS Outdoor Inc. The company has been in a decades-long battle with Caltrans, which has made a broad range of efforts to legally remove the outdoor signs. Nationwide, most billboards are owned by large companies that reap lucrative rewards for comparatively small investments.

Once the sign is in place, the cost to change the message is much cheaper than the rental fee. Advertisers who once retreated from billboards are returning to the market. Potential customers spend more time in their cars and less at home, so reaching them as they commute has become attractive again.

When the leases expired, it looked as if the CBS Outdoor signs would be on their way to the reuse yard, but the company stubbornly refused to acknowledge that Caltrans could decline to renew the leases. The industry loudly trumpets its private property rights, but when it comes to the rights of Caltrans to control the property the agency owns, it’s a different matter. Even when the checks sent in for expired leases were returned uncashed, CBS Outdoor didn’t get the message.

Would it really be so bad if someone went out there one dark night and cut the eyesores down? Isn’t 48 years long enough to wait? It’s rumored that the company intends to tie up the matter in court for another 20 years or more.
Back when it seemed as if government sometimes worked, it would have been a ridiculous idea. But budget cuts and partisanship dysfunction have drained us of hope that big business and big government will work together to provide solutions for our problems. The idea is really a throwback to the days before citizens expected much of anything from government.

That’s what the extremists say they want, but when their right to make money exploiting resources which belong to us all is threatened, they want the courts to protect them. Their arrogance stems in part from having legions of lawyers on retainer, waiting to file lawsuits to hold up removal orders. Why should they comply, when they are making so much money and having the pleasure of laughing at us at the same time?

There’s an argument to be made that they are actually stealing from the rest of us. Attractive vistas of the bay and wetlands are increasingly important as Humboldt works to create a profitable visitor industry. You won’t find photos of gigantic billboards on tourist brochures or web sites.

With distracted driving at an all-time high, the last thing we need is drivers trying to read and retain details about local businesses. Smartphones and mobile devices can provide much more information while the car is safely parked. As for concept ads, where a visual provides all the impact, those are usually sexual in nature and also don’t enhance the driving of those who view them.

The only real reason not to encourage vigilantes to reclaim our visual resources is that it would be wrong. It almost seems quaint in the age of greed and selfishness. I hate the way that people who still care about right and wrong are constantly getting shafted.

Being a cynic, I suspect that Caltrans released an inflated cost estimate to reduce public expectations. The strategy seems to be a message to the billboard companies that the agency is willing to throw huge amounts of money at them instead of standing up for our rights. There must be a few attorneys at Caltrans, but they don’t appear to have the spine to take action.

Maybe someone can persuade California Attorney General Kamala Harris to step in. She faced down the big banks and got a better settlement than others thought possible. I’ll bet she could evict the billboards.

Elizabeth Alves likes to see the court system used to enforce the law, especially when the defendants are stealing from the public. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Union or to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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