While authorities are seeking whoever chopped down a billboard along the southbound lanes of the U.S. Highway 101 Safety Corridor, the real mystery may be just who owns the land beneath it — and whether the Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Corridor Improvement Project will prevent the fallen billboard from ever rising again.
Caltrans project manager Richard Mullen said that the toppled sign was one of many they are currently “taking inventory on” as part of the requirement.
“We’re just plugging away as we have before,” Mullen said. “That just happened to be one of the signs that we’re still working on.”
Coastal development of the project, which plans to improve safety conditions along the highway at several locations, was approved by the California Coastal Commission in September with several conditions, including “removing, to the maximum extent feasible, all billboards along the corridor.”
The billboard now lies face down next to the railroad tracks running along the highway with its support beams cut.
Lt. Steve Knight said the toppled sign was reported to them on Jan. 2 by a representative of CBS Outdoor Inc., the billboard’s owner. No suspect has been identified.
“The main post and back braces had been intentionally cut,” Knight said. “The suspect used some sort of power tool.”
The billboard was brought down with “clean cuts” made at varying heights from the ground, Knight said.
“Estimated damage is at $15,000,” Knight said. “This is considered to be an act of felony vandalism.”
Upon learning of the billboard’s condition through a Facebook post, Baykeeper policy director Jennifer Kalt called the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department to place a stopwork order on the billboard before CBS Outdoor Inc. could rebuild it.
Kalt said that the billboard was built on Caltrans’ land.
“We’ve been trying to convince them that it’s their property,” Kalt said. “A lot of the billboards are on public lands. The billboard companies are not paying for the leases.”
The stop-work order was posted on Jan. 2 by a Humboldt County building inspector, but was withdrawn the next day after Chief Building Official Todd Sobolik of the Planning and Building Department did some research on the property.
“We found that the property was either owned by the federal government or the state,” Sobolik said. “There is still confusion who owns it, but we have no jurisdiction over either.”
This confusion has been an ongoing for several years. In 2011, Caltrans’ Office of Outdoor Advertising withdrew permits for two billboards owned by CBS Indoor Inc., as they were placed on land owned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, according to a letter from Caltrans. However, a 2012 letter to Caltrans from U.S. Fish and Wildlife stated that the land was not owned by them either.
“It was determined that the above referenced signs were not on USF&WS property…,” the letter stated. “At this time I believe they are on ‘No man’s land,’ this is to say someone other than the Railroad or U.S. Government owns title to the property.”
A multi-agency ad hoc committee that was formed by the Humboldt County Association of Governments in October met on Thursday to collaborate their efforts for the project, including the issue involving the billboards. Mullen — a member of the subcommittee — said that they are currently gathering information on every billboard on both sides of the safety corridor to determine who owns the land they are placed on.
“We’re trying to get our ducks in a row,” Mullen said. “We’re making sure we have accurate information so when we do go out and work with outside agencies, we’re giving out information that we feel is accurate.”
Other committee members representing Humboldt County, the city of Arcata, the city of Eureka, and the consulting agency GHD were also present at the meeting to discuss another Coastal Commission condition — the construction of a bayside biking and recreational trail.
The trail is planned to run from around X Street in Eureka along the bay to southern Arcata.
Mullen said their billboard data collection will coincide with areas where the trail is proposed to be built in order to conserve time.
“The condition says ‘as feasible,’ which is a pretty general term,” Mullen said at the meeting. “We’ll be going through all of our signs and then start filtering out what feasibility is in (the Coastal Commission’s) eyes.”
Last year, Caltrans estimated that removing the billboards would cost around $2 million.
“That’s a tough one to estimate,” Mullen said during the meeting. “There was an estimate thrown out there a while back, but that wasn’t just for signs. At some point, we’re going to have to update that estimate.”