While Arcata resident Dave Meserve admits that putting up signs to challenge the existence of bayside billboards along Highway 101 to be a bit ironic, he said his signs are no different than the billboards he claims are currently standing unpermitted or without landowner permission.
“I have as much a right to put up my signs out there as they do to have their illegal signs down there,” he said.
The community activist and former Arcata city councilman said he has over the last few days set up small white signs next to several billboards along the Highway 101 safety corridor between Eureka and Arcata that reads in bold, black letters, “Mr. CBS/Outfront: Tear down this billboard,” with an arrow pointing toward the subject sign.
Along with the signs, Meserve created a change. org petition calling for local government entities to not renew permits for signs owned by Outfront Media — previously called CBS Outdoor Inc. — that he and others claim are standing unpermitted on public and private lands, violate the California Coastal Act and block the viewshed of Humboldt Bay. The petition titled “Remove Humboldt Bay Billboards” has nearly 1,000 signatures.
Allpoints Signs owner Geoff Wills, who maintains 15 of the nearly 20 billboards owned by Outfront Media along the corridor, disagrees with Meserve’s methods of protest and disputes the claims that the boards are standing without the permission of landowners. Wills said he was unsure himself initially whether all the boards he works on were erected legally before he spoke with Outfront Media’s real estate department.
“There is a lot of slandering right now and a lot of claims,” Wills said. “Every board that Outfront Media owns on the safety corridor currently has a land lease.”
The beginning of 2014 saw a string of vandalism along the 6-mile safety corridor, with three billboards being slashed down with a power tool by an unknown vandal or vandals. Two signs remained facedown in the muck along the shore of Humboldt Bay until the Northcoast Environmental Center cleared the wreckage out several months later due to the potential hazard to the bay. The third, also owned by Outfront Media, was re-erected shortly after, with Arcata challenging the move in January 2014.
“Our records indicate that no building permit was applied for or issued for this re-installation,” the Jan. 13, 2014 letter from the city to CBS Outdoor Inc. reads. “As this sign is directly adjacent to Highway 101 and Arcata Bay, the City considers the re-installation of the sign a health and safety issue ... .”
Nearly a year passed with no other acts of vandalism, but Wills said that changed about two weeks ago. Will said he discovered that the posts on the Les Schwab Tires billboard — which he said stands on land owned by James Hoff and Tom McMurray — along southbound Highway 101 were nearly 90 percent cut, “hoping the wind would take care of the rest.”
With the recent storms carrying winds powerful enough to down redwood trees, Wills said this act of vandalism created a safety issue for both his workers who repaired the sign and for the drivers on the nearby highway.
“Obviously they don’t think they’re doing felony trespassing or felony vandalism. If they realized they could actually hurt someone,” he said, trailing off. “You try your best to prevent things from blowing over.”
Meserve, who served on the Arcata City Council from 2002 to 2006, said he’s taking a more humorous approach with his protest, and dealing with the billboards through public entities as had occurred during his term.
“It occurred to me that perhaps the way to keep things moving on this is to have some sort of popular movement,” he said. “I was very confident and still am that a large majority of people want to see them gone. I think tapping into that popular wish for them to be gone is one way we can put pressure on the city councils, county and Caltrans to force them to remove them.”
During his council term, Meserve said he and the council had to challenge several billboard companies such as CBS Outdoor Inc. after signs were blown over, usually leading to costly lawsuits.
“We had to continually meet as a council and say do we want to proceed with this lawsuit and see if we need to budget another $20,000 for it or $30,000 for it,” he said. “They basically hold the card of their deep pockets. It’s in their longtime interest to thwart any lawsuit.”
Caltrans has already had instructions from the California Coastal Commission to remove as many billboards as feasible along the safety corridor where Caltrans is currently working to create a raised interchange at the Indianola Cutoff, among other changes.
The condition to remove the billboards was set by the commission in order for Caltrans to obtain coastal development permits for the project.
The requirement was challenged by CBS Outdoor Inc. After nearly a year in court, CBS Outdoor’s challenge to the condition was thrown out by Judge Bruce Watson last month, stating that it was filed too early as Caltrans has yet to identify any billboards for removal.
On the county level, the board of supervisors have addressed all items within the General Plan Update relating to billboards, but Senior Planner Michael Richardson of the county Planning and Building Department said the billboards are “a story that keeps on changing.”
One of the billboard opponents’ main claims is that many of the billboards stand within the tidal zone, and thus violate the California Coastal Act. Wills said that while many of the billboards along the bay have been removed, many have stood as they existed well before the Coastal Act passed in 1970.
The county’s original 1984 Framework Plan almost included an implementation measure that would designate Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata as a Scenic Highway.
“That would have prohibited any new billboard construction,” Richardson said. “That implementation measure never was fully completed so what we’re left with is that there is no outright prohibition of billboards on that stretch. Any new billboards would require a conditional use permit and coastal development permit.”
Richardson said getting a permit for a new billboard through the county planning commission would be an “uphill battle” when considering the possible impacts to the bay’s viewshed. But if the billboards already existed before the Coastal Act and the county’s own rules established in the 1960s, Richardson said they would be “grandfathered in.” “The Coastal Act was voted on into effect in 1970 and any billboards that existed prior to that date are protected by the Coastal Act and provisions that say that the existing development that is here is allowed to remain and allowed to be maintained,” he said. “In those cases, there aren’t going to be any permits and coastal permits or not any building permits. They are protected as if they were permitted.”
Meserve said these public agencies should be looking into that issue as well.
“If they’re grandfathered in, how long does that stand? To me it’s against the public interest and intent of the Coastal Act to have anything built there,” he said.
Meserve said he does not feel that his petition and efforts are harming local businesses that advertise on the signs, and said that some signs on private land are likely leased with the landowner’s permission — such as the Bracut Industrial Park.
“My intention is not to harm local business and I feel that if any time they are unable to use those signs, they can purchase those that are permitted to be there, or put an ad online and probably have the same hits per dollar,” he said.
As a business owner who makes a living off billboards that advertise local businesses, Wills said he finds the “constant attack” on the signs to be frustrating.
“I think it’s pointless. If there is anything Humboldt County needs, it’s a solid economy and work for people to do. ... They obviously work because we’ve been sold out for three years straight. There is a waiting list to get on one of those signs. It’s not like this is some dying media like they say. I think they will benefit our economy far more than removing signs.”
Meserve said he will keep putting up his own protest sign, while Wills said he will continue to remove them when he sees them near his billboards.
“You can’t just go on and trespass on their property slandering their private property. Every time he’s knowingly trespassing on property when he’s doing this,” Wills said. “I can’t go out to Dave’s front yard and put a sign out there.”
Claiming that the billboards are standing illegally in the first place, Meserve said his own signs should not be the only ones singled out. “My point is those signs are my property and they’re vandalizing them. Who has the right to do that?” he said.