We live in a beautiful place and we are reminded of this every time we bike, walk, or drive around Humboldt Bay. Unfortunately, for many years these scenic coastal views have been marred by the presence of unsightly billboards jutting up along the Highway 101 Safety Corridor between Arcata and Eureka. 

Humboldt Baykeeper has been working for several years to have these billboards removed - legally and permanently. There have been many unsuccessful attempts in the past to remove these billboards, but in Sept. 2013, the California Coastal Commission responded to our calls to address this blight. Since then, Caltrans has finally revoked permits for most of the billboards along the bay. Since 2012, 15 fewer billboards obstruct our beautiful bay views between Arcata and Eureka, and today only 4 remain. We will continue our efforts until they are all gone for good.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday held off making a decision on the rebuilding of a controversial billboard after complicated questions emerged about the structure’s legality and environmental effects.

After a lengthy, often tense discussion, the supervisors postponed a decision to its Aug. 18 meeting, finding that county staff needs more time to investigate the billboard’s effects on the surrounding environment.

Staff had supported approving the rebuild — even after the county planning commission in May went against staff recommendation to deny the permit — but flipped at the eleventh hour after Planning and Building director John Ford said that a conversation with the project engineer that very morning had introduced new information about the billboard’s structural features.

Specifically, Ford said the billboard would dig additional holes in the wetlands, which wasn’t in the plans Ford had previously reviewed and needed further review to establish certainty.

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On the surface, the question was simple. Should Eureka’s AllPoints Sign Company be allowed to rebuild this thing? The advertising plank — some version of which has been in this spot for more than 60 years — blew over in a November windstorm, and AllPoints owner Geoff Wills wants to re-erect it.

Beneath the surface, however, lies a bureaucratic thicket of rules and regulations, raising questions about everything from potential environmental impacts to permit histories, engineering plans, agency jurisdictions and more. 

The staff report recommended approving the project — both at the Planning Commission meeting and again for today’s meeting. But after the public comment period, Ford reversed course. He said that his conversation with the project’s engineer this morning provided new information that hadn’t previously been considered.

“There could be up to 18 new holes dug that could be up to three feet in diameter within a wetland environment,” he said. “This has not been the context within which this [project] has been assessed.” That being the case, he said, “It would be my recommendation to not approve [the Planning Commission ruling] appeal or the special permit without having that additional information at least.”

Supervisor Mike Wilson’s motion to continue the matter to the board’s Aug. 18 meeting passed 3-2, giving county staff time to explore a host of unanswered (or insufficiently answered) questions, including:

  • the potential environmental impacts of digging foundation holes;

  • potential tribal concerns with those concrete footings;

  • any jurisdictional concerns from the State Lands Agency;

  • possible issues pertaining to public trust resources; and

  • the status of the original CalTrans Outdoor Advertising permit for the billboard.

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An advertising company that owns a billboard destroyed by heavy winds late last year wants to reconstruct it, which could pose a complicated legal question for Humboldt County at an upcoming appeal hearing at the board of supervisors.

Eureka-based Allpoints Outdoor, Inc., owns the billboard, along with a number of other roadside signs along the coastal wetlands off U.S. Highway 101 just south of Eureka. New billboards are no longer allowed to be built there, but existing ones are grandfathered into the current zoning.

The key question for the board of supervisors: If a damaged billboard is rebuilt, does it constitute a new billboard altogether or the reconstruction of the old one?

“Putting a billboard upstream from a highway bridge is expressly prohibited by state law,” Jennifer Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper said. “In a flood, the billboard could be swept into the river… Even if you don’t care about coastal wetlands, you should care about that.” 

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In a “virtual” meeting Thursday evening, the Humboldt County Planning Commission voted 4-2 to deny a special permit that would have allowed Eureka’s AllPoints Sign Company to rebuild a billboard that was toppled by high winds back in November.

The sign has been located in the coastal wetlands near Elk River for at least 65 years, according to a staff report and historic photographs. Its construction predates all the zoning and building codes that would apply to any new structures. So the debate at last night’s meeting focused largely on the question of whether rebuilding the sign constitute repair or new construction. 

Jennifer Kalt, director of the environmental nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper, told the Outpost that sign companies usually don’t bother applying for permits to rebuild fallen signs. Instead, they simply rush out and rebuild them without permission. And she scoffed at the notion that this particular sign dates back more than half a century. “There’s probably not a single board left from the 1940s, let’s face it,” she said. “This county has been talking for 40 years about regulating these things [billboards] to get them out of scenic and coastal wetland areas, and it’s time to just do it,” she said.

 

UPDATE: On February 20, the Humboldt County Planning Commission voted 4-1 to postpone the Special Permit on the fallen Elk River billboard until more information is provided. The new hearing date was scheduoled for March 19, but has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The billboard uprights snapped in a windstorm on Nov. 27, and although billboards are not allowed in wetlands or floodplains - and the County does not allow billboards anywhere but lands zoned for commercial or industrial uses - the county staff is recommending approval.