THIS SUMMER, THOUSANDS OF tourists will drive north from the Bay Area toward Humboldt County. After following Highway 101 through the redwoods, they'll enter the Eel River Valley where cows graze in green pastures, a turquoise river meanders by alder groves and mountain ridges parade to the horizon.
The motorists' storybook views will be interrupted by occasional stands of billboards after they pass Highway 36, and when they reach the outskirts of Eureka, some 15 of the large ads will urge them to dine, sleep, gas up and gamble.
The Billboard Row at the city's southern gateway -- and a longer series of ads between Arcata and Eureka -- have been the subjects of simmering controversy for more than a decade. Billboard opponents say the big signs detract from the county's natural beauty and convey an impression of "tacky commercialism." Supporters say the billboards are valuable marketing tools for local businesses.
Both sides are sharpening their arguments for a public hearing before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors this Tuesday, March 21, at 1:30 p.m.
The board will render judgment on a narrow permitting issue that affects just one proposed new billboard. But a decision in favor of the billboard applicant could set a precedent leading to more billboards in the county. Conversely, the board could also agree with billboard opponents and consider adopting a four-year moratorium on new billboards.
Tuesday will also be a warm-up for larger battles to come over establishing new signage rules for sections of Hwy. 101 that may someday be designated either Humboldt County Scenic Routes or part of a state-federal Scenic Byway.
There are about 130 billboards on Highway 101 between Stafford and Clam Beach (not counting the blue "Gas, Food, Lodging" boards operated by CalTrans).
"They are a very significant part of our marketing," said Gary Stone, owner of Best Western Humboldt Bay Inn (formerly Thunderbird Inn), which advertises on two highway billboards. "Not everyone travels by reservation, and billboards allow you to compete by letting travelers know that they have a choice farther down the road."
Stone conducted a test several years ago to see what kind of response he was getting from his outdoor ads. He posted a special discount price on the billboards for four months. In that period, 25 to 30 percent of the motel's clients asked for the special price.
"The local business people need billboards," echoed Chuck Ellsworth, owner of Allpoints Signs. "That's why they have long-term contracts for five or 10 years. They don't want to lose those things."
Ellsworth employs two workers and estimates that "a dozen or more" people work at creating billboard images and maintaining the sign structures in Humboldt County. "These are well-paying jobs because we're pretty skilled craftsman," he said.
Chuck Ellsworth, owner of Allpoints Signs, has been designing and
assembling billboards for local businesses for 29 years.
But billboard opponents say the signs hurt the local economy more than they help. "They are a liability for tourism," said Roland Yartzoff, a marketing consultant who lives near Patrick's Point.
"From the Oregon border to the Golden Gate there is no place on Highway 101 that has the kind of density of billboards that you find here (in the Eureka-Arcata area)," said Yartzoff. "When a tourist comes to this area for the first time, their impressions are that the redwoods are hauntingly beautiful, the Victorian homes are spectacular ... and `God, what a lot of billboards.'"
"About 20 years ago we had a billboard for a few months. They may be pretty good advertising, but I was always embarrassed about it," said Ted Andersen, owner of Kokopilau, a gift and clothing store with locations in Old Town and Bayshore Mall. "They really obstruct the views of the bay and the environment. ... I think they're outrageous eyesores."
Similar differences of opinion about billboards can be found any place in the United States where nature-based and heritage-based tourism are important to the economy.
Elected officials in Humboldt County have also taken sharply different positions on billboards. In Arcata, the City Council passed an ordinance banning billboards in the mid-1970s, and the current council recently voted to support the call for a moratorium on new billboards in the county's jurisdiction. In Eureka, however, the City Council voted unanimously four years ago to exclude the city from a proposed Tri-State Scenic Byway because "it meant giving up local control over the placement of billboards," according to the May 8, 1996, Times-Standard.
But even when local authorities vote to remove or modify existing billboards, they run into pro-billboard laws shaped by state and federal legislators with help from the powerful outdoor advertising industry.
"Once they're up, they are there forever," said Narda Wilson, a government planner in Flathead County, Mont., where local officials have tried unsuccessfully to remove billboards from scenic routes including the roads leading to Glacier National Park.
More than 20 years after Arcata banned billboards, about a dozen signs erected before the ordinance -- or located on land that was later annexed -- still stand as "legal nonconforming uses."
Arcata requires a billboard owner to apply for a conditional use permit to rebuild a board that is more than 50 percent destroyed. In recent winters, two billboards have collapsed in storms. One was rebuilt before the city photographed the demolished sign to document its destruction. But this past winter, city staff took videotape of a demolished sign at the southern edge of town. When the billboard company's local contractor started rebuilding it without a permit, the city slapped a "stop work" order on the project.
Roland Yartzoff, a marketing consultant who lives near Patrick's Point, argues that billboards spoil the scenic views of the area.
'When a tourist comes to this area for the first time, their impressions are that the redwoods are hauntingly beautiful ... and "God, what a lot of billboards." '
The Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge has sought for more than 20 years to remove seven billboards on refuge property along Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka and one billboard south of Fields Landing. After repeated surveys of property lines, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official promises, "They're going to be history soon."
But Outdoor Systems, the enormous Phoenix-based corporation that bought 3M National Advertising Co. in 1997, may continue to fight the federal agency. Outdoor Systems did not return a phone call from the Journal.
North Coast Railroad Authority had better luck in the mid-1990s when it convinced 3M to remove eight signs on railroad property between Arcata and Eureka. But the company refused to remove at least 12 others the NCRA wanted to eliminate.
Folks in the local outdoor advertising industry record the eight signs in the debit column. They also lament the loss of billboards south of Eureka several years ago, when CalTrans built the Humboldt Hill interchange. "When that interchange went in, we lost seven or eight," said Ellsworth.
Billboard opponents seem to have the opposite impression. They see billboards sprouting up everywhere.
County planning department figures show seven new billboards permitted in the last 10 years, but some heavily used stretches of Highway 101 are in city jurisdictions.
Fortuna Planning Director Lisa Shikany said the city has little property near the freeway and only a few billboards on Main Street within the city limits.
"The newer billboards south of town are on county property," she said.
Kevin Hamblin, planning director for Eureka, said he can only recall two or three new billboards in the last 10 years and one on city property that was removed.
He does remember the Lottery billboard on Broadway, which caused a stir about six years ago.
"It was controversial. The council was split," he said.
Whatever the actual birthrate for new billboards, Jim Hoff's application to erect a new, large double-sided billboard on Billboard Row has prompted a cry of "Enough already!" from billboard opponents.
Hoff's proposed sign would be taller than a three-story building. But the view it would block is not exactly a postcard. The marshy 25-acre parcel sits between the Pacific Gas and Electric power plant and an industrial building housing Danielson Construction, and Hoff already has two double-sided billboards just south of the site of the proposed billboard.
"It's not just that one billboard. We don't want to see any more billboards until there has been a chance to look at this issue rationally through the general plan process," said Michelle McKeegan, president of Keep Eureka Beautiful.
The current general plan, adopted 16 years ago, called for the county to study and possibly develop a Scenic Routes System which would restrict the size, design and placement of new billboards. A scenic-route study has never been done, but the County Planning Department has proposed to conduct such a study as it updates the general plan, a process just begun and projected to continue for four years.
In the meantime, McKeegan says, new billboards threaten the beautiful views along what could become scenic routes in the future. "It's a visual emergency," said McKeegan.
'It's a visual emergency,' says Michelle McKeegan, president of Keep Eureka Beautiful.
To save the endangered vistas, Keep Eureka Beautiful, Friends of Humboldt County (a group formed to oppose the waterfront Wal-Mart), the Sierra Club, the Northern Redwoods Bed and Breakfast Association and the City of Arcata will ask the Board of Supervisors to pass an "urgency ordinance" banning any new billboards before the scenic-route study is completed. Such an ordinance would have to be placed on the agenda for a future meeting, and it would require "aye" votes by four of the five supervisors.
The Planning Department took a middle-ground position on Hoff's billboard, granting him a permit for 15 years, after which he would have to remove the billboard if the area was designated as a County Scenic Route. If no scenic route designation is forthcoming, he'll be granted extensions in five-year increments.
Hoff appealed the decision to the County Planning Commission which deadlocked three-three in a rare tie vote, allowing the department's ruling to stand. Hoff then appealed to the Board of Supervisors, his final recourse short of a lawsuit against the county.
Hoff declined to be interviewed for this story. "I'll save my comments for the hearing," he said.
Hoff had also been reluctant to give the Planning Department financial data planners requested to determine if the 15-year term was viable for his business needs. "We didn't want to come up with a renewal period that was uneconomic," said Planning Director Kirk Girard.
Using building permit applications for other billboards, they estimated Hoff's construction costs at $40,000 and his yearly operational costs at $6,000. They figured his rental income would be about $2,500 per month for the two-sided billboard (a figure roughly consistent with estimates provided for this story by industry sources).
Based on those projections, Hoff's initial investment and costs would be recovered within two years, and the 15-year period would yield a handsome profit. Fifteen-year time limits have been imposed on two other billboard permits issued since 1995 without objection from the applicants, according to the Planning Department's report to the Board of Supervisors.
Without a time limit on the permit, the county would have two options if it decided in the future to adopt new billboard rules for a scenic route that included the southern approach to Eureka. According to Girard, the county could write a check to compensate the billboard owner for his investment and loss of cash flow or establish a reasonable time period, perhaps five to 10 years, for owners to remove the signs or modify them to comply with new standards. "You have do determine an appropriate time frame so you're not seizing their assets without compensation," said Girard.
If the board votes to grant Hoff's request for a permit with no time limit, the Planning Department will have to devise a new approach to permitting new signs along potential scenic routes. "If the board felt it was an inappropriate land-use planning tool, we wouldn't recommend it again," said Girard.
Regardless of what happens Tuesday, billboard supporters and detractors will shift their focus to the general plan update and what it will say about local scenic routes and billboards.
Girard, for one, is enthusiastic about the potential for striking a "balance between drawing people to the businesses that serve tourists and having very appealing highways."
"There are some great success stories across the country where counties and cities have gotten landscape artists and businesses involved in developing billboard standards," he said.
"Some signs are very inconspicuous but they do the job," he said, perhaps thinking of the billboard for "Scotia: Historic Lumber Town" that hangs in the redwoods near Stafford or the "Victorian Ferndale" sign that pokes through the conifers atop Table Bluff.
"There are probably some areas where any sign would be bad ... some areas where billboards would be OK but where we need design guidelines. We haven't done the study yet. That's our bigger call to action under the general plan update."