The U.S. Highway 101 Safety Corridor between Arcata and Eureka is now three billboards short due to what has been a long contested and debated issue of land ownership and permission from landowners.
While three billboards were hacked down on the corridor last year overnight, the three signs that were removed earlier this week were taken down by their owners after it was determined after that the signs stood on property that was a North Coast Railroad Authority, or NCRA, land easement.
Created by state legislation to restore and preserve the Northwest Pacific rail service in 1989, the NCRA has taken a hard stance on billboards since at least 2003, when Executive Director Mitch Stogner began working for the government entity.
“It’s safe to say from 2003 forward, and even before that, the NCRA has taken the position that we want the billboards removed. And we finally succeeded with respect,” he said. “It’s very gratifying to finally see these signs come down and hope it extends to other signs in that corridor.”
The three billboards in question were owned by Allpoints Signs owner Geoff Wills and Steve Moser of Moser Outdoor Advertising. The local business owners each received a letter from Caltrans’ Office of Outdoor Advertising on Dec. 1, notifying them that the agency was revoking their advertising permit and cited a state code that states that the landowner must “have consented to the placing of the advertising display.”
Caltrans District 1 Public Information Officer Eli Rohl said the agency received a letter written by Stogner on behalf of the NCRA on Oct. 17, 2014, notifying them that the billboards were standing unpermitted on NCRA land. Rohl said he attempted to contact the Office of Outdoor Advertising to determine what led the agency to determine NCRA’s claims were correct, but did not receive a reply.
“The NCRA does own the land out there, outright,” he said.
This is not the first time the NCRA had requested that Caltrans to revoke the billboard permits, with NCRA board Chairwoman Estelle Fennell stating that letters were sent back to Caltrans at least as far back as 2006, with Stogner estimating it to go back even further. Despite the NCRA not giving permission to have the three billboards on the land, Rohl said the Office of Outdoor Advertising renewed the permits.
One of the signs was owned by Wills, which was recently advertising Burger King to southbound drivers heading to Eureka and displaying the Allpoints Sign logo to northbound drivers. Wills said he bought the sign from Barbara Lopez — another recipient of Caltrans’ Dec. 1 permit revocation letter — in 2013 and had to pull it down on Sunday.
“We had no proof of knowing who owned this property. Barbara didn’t really have much information. They’ve just existed there forever. Now it’s finally clear who owns the property,” he said. “We’re not out there to poach on anyone’s property, but we’re not going to pull down the board if we believe we have a right to be on the easement and don’t know the property owner.”
On June 20, 2011, the NCRA Board of Directors voted unanimously during a closed session hearing to “make a demand against the owner of 3 displays that are located on NCRA fee property to remove the billboards,” according to the court minutes. On Aug. 25, 2011, Caltrans’ Office of Outdoor Advertising sent a letter to Lopez stating that the permit for the sign was revoked, referencing the same state code that was later sent to her on Dec. 1. The Office of Outdoor Advertising later renewed the permit in June 2014, Rohl said, stating this was likely due to the small staff that handles the majority of the billboards in the northern counties.
“That permit was reissued in error,” he said. “I don’t believe there was any landowner permission for that sign to be there. NCRA said they never gave consent to that. People are human and make mistakes.”
Fennell said that the NCRA was receiving checks from the billboard owners, but stated the agency “never cashed them” as it was insisting the boards were standing without permission.
As a local business owner, Wills said the loss of the sign will definitely have an impact.
“It sucks too because those are the only three boards on the corridor that have been maintained by 100 percent local ownership since they were built in the 1940s, which is kind of their detriment,” he said.
Fennell said that the NCRA recognized the impacts on the sign owners, with the board having talked to Wills about a possible agreement to continue advertising but at a separate location.
“I appreciate Geoff Wills and Allpoints for going ahead with that,” she said. “I know it was difficult for him, because I know it was a blow to his business.”
The billboard owners had a right to appeal the revocation of the permits within 30 days of the letter, but Rohl said none of the owners did.
In the meantime, Wills said he will “lick his wounds and move on.”
“If we don’t have permission to be there, they come down,” he said.
Signs of the future
With three billboards coming down through documentation rather than destruction, some believe that there is a momentum to remove the other billboards along the six-mile safety corridor, with most owned by advertising giant Outfront Media, previously known as CBS Outdoor Inc.
Stogner said there is “certainly potential to remove others.” “Finally, after many, many years and lots of effort, all three are down and probably several more to go,” he said.
Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt said her environmental organization has been working on the issue for the last six years, but Caltrans only began responding to its requests to have billboards removed from public lands when the California Coastal Commission stepped in.
The commission mandated that Caltrans remove as many billboards as feasible along the safety corridor where Caltrans is currently working to create a raised interchange at the Indianola Cutoff and 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, but the case was dismissed by Judge Bruce Watson last month, stating that it was filed too early as Caltrans has yet to identify any billboards for removal.
Others like Kalt and former Arcata City Councilman Dave Meserve already have several in mind, with Kalt stating that Humboldt Baykeeper has identified 14 billboards on the corridor as being on public land, with nine remaining standing. Rohl said Caltrans is currently working on a survey to identify whether billboards are on public land, and whether they are permitted.
“They should just get to it,” Kalt said.
Meserve said he had to deal with the same issues as a councilman, and that he planned to ask the current council at their Wednesday night meeting to consider sending a letter to the stakeholder agencies calling for the removal of the five billboards located within Arcata city limits.
“The fact that three of them came down has shown that it is possible to get them down,” he said.
Meserve started a campaign against the Outfront Media billboards, placing signs next to them calling for their removal and creating a change.org petition which garnered about 1,200 signatures.