Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT BAY – What a vandal destroyed at the turn of the year, regulatory complications may make permanent.
On Thursday, Jan. 2 at 12:54 p.m., the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office took a report of vandalism to one of the billboards along U.S. Highway 101. It had been cut down.
The billboard, advertising the services of Arcata’s Bailey Mortgage, was deliberately cut down with a saw of some kind. The toppling of the sign may have taken place during the previous day’s King Tide, when it would have been accessible by boat or even kayak.
The billboard, owned by CBS Outdoor, predates much of today’s environmental regulation and lacks permits that would be required of any new billboard. It is allowed to occupy the bay-side location without the permits, having been effectively grandfathered in place.
The fallen billboard set off a flurry of e-mail messages between various agencies, regulators and bay activists as to what might happen next.
Complicating the issue was some question as to who owns and has jurisdiction over the property on which the billboard stood.
On Thursday, Jan. 2, the Humboldt County Building Division issued a stop-work order on reconstructing the billboard. The order, which was later rescinded, was based on the presumption that the land belonged to the federal government. It stated that a county building permit would be required.
By Monday, though, ownership was somewhat clarified, if only by the process of elimination.
When a permit was issued for the billboard by the California Department of Public Works, Division of Highways on June 24, 1971, the property was apparently owned by Ray Bradbury of Sonoma.
During the intervening 42 years, it may have become the property of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), though Caltrans is still researching the matter. “We are uncertain at this time as to the underlying property ownership,” said Caltrans spokesman Scott Burger. “We have not seen a title report.”
County Building Official Todd Sobolik said the stop-work order had been issued in the belief that the federal government owned the property.
Humboldt Baykeeper Policy Director Jen Kalt said it was “thought to be owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge until a few months ago.”
Confirmed Sobolik, “The Feds are saying it’s not theirs.”
What’s fairly certain is that the billboard will require permits from the Humboldt Bay Harbor and Recreation District and the state Coastal Commission to be re-erected. That could be a dealbreaker.
The Coastal Commission is notoriously slow in processing paperwork, and any permit could take many months to run the gauntlet of approvals.
A permit will also be required from the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District (HBHRCD). That will involve a small fee and perhaps a charge for staff time required to process the application.
“Typically, repairs and replacement of existing structures are relatively simple,” said Dan Berman, the Bay District’s director of Conservation Division.
But a bay billboard replacement is not a typical repair. It will require a review and compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. “Part of the process is to assess what the appropriate path to CEQA is,” Berman said.
The billboard permit application would have to come directly from the owner of the underlying land, presumably Caltrans. It would also have to be consistent with the Bay District’s enabling legislation and management plan.
The approval process requires consideration by the HBHRCD’s Commission, including public hearings.
Commissioner Pat Higgins said his opinion of the billboards is well-known, and not particularly favorable. “I have been on public record in pronouncements against said billboards as visual blight,” Higgins said. “It’s strange, though, because it’s been vandalized. If we don’t put it back up, does that make us vandals?”
In a letter to Sobolik, Kalt stated that the area in which the billboard stood is also located within the Scenic View Areas designated by the County’s Local Coastal Plan. In addition, Kalt said, it stood in public trust lands as defined by the California State Lands Commission.
“Such lands are held in trust for the people of the state that they may enjoy the navigation of the waters, carry on commerce over them and have liberty of fishing free from obstruction or interference from private parties,” Kalt said.
Further, the billboard may have been doomed anyway by Caltrans’ 101 Safety Corridor Improvement Project. The project’s Visual Impact Mitigation section states that “Prior to or concurrent with its submittal to the Commission of a coastal development permit application for the project Caltrans will develop and submit a plan to provide mitigation for the visual impacts of the project by removing, to the maximum extent feasible, all billboards along the corridor, as well as other overhead infrastructure (such as power poles and power lines), and by steepening the inside slopes of the interchange to maximize the view towards the bay from Indianola Cutoff.”
All in all, it appears that Bailey Mortgage may have to find another avenue to publicize its services.
Brett Orr of CBS Outdoor had no information on any pending effort to jump the regulatory hurdles and rebuild the cut-down sign.
“I do not know the answer to that,” he said.