Supervisors rescind controversial electronic billboard decision

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Public outcry has levered a reversal of a Board of Supervisors decision to remove a ban on electronic billboards from the draft General Plan Update.

The policy banning them was included in the 2012 Planning Commission draft of the update but in an early October straw vote, most supervisors supported removing it. Supervisor Mark Lovelace had cast the only dissent vote.facebook-like-button

But there was a lot more dissent at a Nov. 3 hearing on the update’s scenic resources section. A procession of public comment speakers asked supervisors to guard the county’s scenic character and re-insert the ban.

One man upheld a sign he made lamenting the obtrusive presence of ad-bearing signs and another informed supervisors of an Internet petition supporting the ban that gained over 600 signatures.

When residents were done speaking, supervisors agreed to revisit their decision. Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said he never intended to promote mass installation of electronic and animated billboards and agreed to reverse his previous vote.

“It’s never going to happen – we don’t want electronic billboards in Humboldt County so I’m fine with changing the straw vote,” he said.

facebook-like-buttonThe billboard issue became tangible in late October, when the Bear River Casino installed an animated billboard that looms over the tree line of U.S. Highway 101. Supervisor Estelle Fennell said its installation was timely.

“I think it helped to underline what was peoples’ concern and that is off-premise electronic signs,” she continued. “I think we’ve heard very loudly from the community that that’s not a value that works with the vision of Humboldt County.”

The casino billboard was built on tribal land and the county had no say on it. Fennell said that under county regulations, new off-site billboards are only allowed in areas zoned for commercial and industrial uses and must be approved by the Planning Commission.

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But re-installation of existing billboards is allowed wherever they are now located and does not require Planning Commission review. That is also controversial, particularly with the numerous billboards skirting Humboldt Bay on U.S. Highway 101. In early October, a draft update policy that required Planning Commission approval for re-erecting billboards was changed by the board majority. The rewritten policy struck the requirement for commission review.

At an Oct. 20 hearing, the policy was again reworded, as planning staff recommended adding language that makes it clear that re-installation still requires an over-the-counter building permit. But those in the billboard business object to that. An attorney representing CBS Outdoor said new building permits should not apply to billboards that were first approved decades ago.facebook-like-button

Tom McMurray leases billboard space and said requiring building permits gives vandals incentive to chop down billboards – as they have already done along U.S. Highway 101.

“What happens with vandalism?” he asked. “Who then has the leverage – does the vandal have the leverage because of what it’s going to take to put the sign back up?”

McMurray said billboard companies should be able to immediately re-erect downed billboards “without having to meet all of these new standards.”

But Planning Director Kevin Hamblin said building permits ensure safety standards are met, are inexpensive and only take about a week to process.

County Planner Rob Wall refuted the contention that requiring building permits would change setbacks and other conditions. “There is nothing in this language that would prohibit or hinder the outdoor advertising business in Humboldt County,” he said.

With staff and the billboard professionals at a stand-off, supervisors considered all the arguments as the meeting neared its end. A majority of supervisors directed staff to meet again with the billboard advocates to hammer out another version of the policy.

It will be revisited at the board’s next update hearing, on Dec. 15.

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