Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Out amid the discarded macaroni salad containers, Carls Jr. cups and spray-painted graffiti tags along U.S. Highway 101 in south Arcata, the culture wars are heating up.
Another billboard along the U.S. Highway 101/Humboldt Bay corridor was cut down last Thursday, this one advertising mattresses for Living Styles furniture store. It was almost immediately re-erected, after a fashion.
Located inside Arcata just north of the Gannon Slough/101 Bridge, the flattened sign was red-tagged with a stop-work order by City officials the same day.
But the next day, the billboard was somewhat restored to service, if not full structural integrity, by unknown forces.
Geoff Wills of Allpoints Signs wasn’t impressed by the City’s posted admonishment. “Even if Arcata had authority, which they don't, I could see how this would be ignored,” Wills said. “No signature, spelling errors, wrong date and it's printed on standard paper.”
When the billboard was observed lying prone on Friday, the City also sent CBS Outdoor a letter describing the need for a building permit before it could be restored.
Then, when the billboard went back up on Saturday, Community Development Director Larry Oetker said that CBS was sent a letter that detailed the necessary steps the company must take in order to lawfully restore the downed billboard. These include submitting by Jan. 24 an application for a building permit which documents compliance with the 2007 California Building Code.
“Our primary concern is that’s it’s a health and safety issue. that it could blow over into traffic or the bay,” Oetker said.
That concern appears to have a solid foundation – one that's more convincing than the slapdash job someone made of restoring the billboard's underpinnings. Whoever put the sign back up apparently did so hurriedly – possibly in the dark – and not using all the pieces.
Various structural members are screwed together with screws jutting out at odd angles. A cross-member of some sort lies unattached underneath the sign, which waves in the wind.
As billboards fall like dominoes along the bay, partisans pro and con offer varying legal opinions as to whether the signs are legal in the first place, and whether restoring them to service violates the law.
Jennifer Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper cited section § 5460 of the state’s Outdoor Advertising Act (OAA), which states, “It is unlawful for any person to place or cause to be placed, or to maintain or cause to be maintained any advertising display without the lawful permission of the owner or lessee of the property upon which the advertising display is located.”
Geoff Wills of Allpoints Signs, which sells billboard ads for CBS Outdoor, disputed this. “We can work on those without any permits from anyone in the county, City, Caltrans or Harbor District,” he said.
Wills cited section § 5412 of the OAA, which states that “no advertising display which was lawfully erected anywhere within this state shall be compelled to be removed, nor shall its customary maintenance or use be limited, whether or not the removal or limitation is pursuant to or because of this chapter or any other law, ordinance, or regulation of any governmental entity, without payment of compensation, as defined in the Eminent Domain Law...”
States the City of Arcata letter, signed by Building Official Dean Renfer, “The billboard is located within the permitting jurisdiction of the City of Arcata. A permit application needs to be submitted by the contractor or property owner to the City of Arcata Building Division...”
The City’s authority seems to rest on a 2006 court decision in the case of Viacom Outdoor, Inc. v. City of Arcata. The City was originally found to have violated Viacom’s rights in preventing a blown-down billboard from being re-erected, but the decision was overturned on appeal.
The appellate court decision in Arcata’s favor states that “we hold that the State Act cannot be deemed either expressly or impliedly to displace the traditional regulatory power of cities and counties, and therefore it does not pre-empt the City’s efforts to enforce the permit requirements of its building code and sign code.”
Humboldt Bay Harbor Commissioner Mike Wilson said he was at the billboard site Saturday to ascertain whether it was close enough to the bay to be within the jurisdiction of the Harbor District. He said an Allpoints Signs truck drove up, and the driver told him that he was looking to see if someone was cutting it down.
Wills said Wilson told former Allpoints owner Chuck Ellsworth that he was “out to fine whomever rebuilt the sign,” which Wilson denies. He says he was only there to determine jurisdiction, and that the billboard didn’t seem to be close enough to the bay to be in his district’s authority.
Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace called it a property rights issue. “To build something on someone’s property seems akin to an act of vandalism,” he said. “The owner should have the right to say whether they want something built on their property or not.”
Caltrans spokesman Scott Burger said he was still researching ownership.
Wilson said the shoddy reconstruction “is a perfect example of why a permit is required.”
Lovelace said he was in touch with “various parties” in the dispute.
So, he suggested, was First District Supervisor Rex Bohn. Lovelace said that he and Bohn were talking to a constituent on Friday, the day of when Bohn told the citizen that “they’re gonna put that back up by tomorrow morning.” If that was the case, then not only would a supervisor from another district be involving himself in a Third District dispute, but Bohn would have had foreknowledge of a potentially illegal act.
But Bohn said he didn’t know for certain the billboard would be re-erected, and was only speculating. “I think I said it would ‘probably’ be repaired,” Bohn said. “I had no knowledge of that.”
Bohn’s concern centers on the negative impacts on employment and the economy. He said 20 to 25 jobs are dependent on the 90 or so billboards in Humboldt County, some of which have stood for 40 to 50 years.
“I can understand somebody who has a weekly paper being opposed to them,” he said, adding that he was making a joke.
Wills maintains that all the permitting talk is “BS,” and that federal law allowing billboards overrides all other authority.
Said Wills, “The real headline should be, ‘these people are destroying $20,000 worth of property and hurting local businesses.’”