Bay billboards endangered?

by Jim Hight

The 3M National Advertising Co. has promised to remove eight -- and only eight -- of its 27 billboards on publicly owned meadows and marshes along U.S. Highway 101 between Eureka and Arcata.

The company's billboards are on property belonging to the North Coast Railroad Authority and the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and they have been for many years at the center of local controversy over outdoor advertising along this scenic, heavily traveled highway.

The railroad authority board first voted to have 3M remove its billboards at the end of 1995, and later reaffirmed its decision in two votes this year.

"One of the things we're trying to create along the bay is a more user-friendly environment for tourism, and the billboards are a blight," said Dan Hauser, executive director of the NCRA.

The railroad is seeking a private company to operate an around-the-bay excursion run from Bayshore Mall to Samoa Cookhouse, perhaps with a return by boat. Billboard-free bay views would make such a ride more attractive, but regardless of whether that plan goes through, the railroad wants the billboards off its property. "We want to do our part to improve the scenic vista," said Ed McLaughlin, general manager.

3M has contested the railroad's title to the land under many of its billboards. And Hauser acknowledges that there is confusion about ownership of sections of the railroad right-of-way stemming from transactions made by the bankruptcy trustee for Southern Pacific prior to the railroad's purchase by the NCRA in 1992.

"We have not had time to research the full 27 volumes of deeds that were given to us by the title company," said Hauser. "For example, there is a five-acre parcel at Fernbridge that all of our maps showed we owned. We found out that two days before we acquired the railroad a change in title was recorded and that we don't own it."

After a recent survey conducted by NCRA and 3M staff, the company agreed that eight of its signs are on railroad property. But it said all the others are on property which the railroad has either an easement or no title at all.

The NCRA maintains that 10 are on railroad property, two are on easement property which the railroad doesn't control, and another eight are on property to which access is only available through a railroad right-of-way. And 3M does not have permission to cross the railroad property to alter or maintain its billboards, said Hauser. "If we can catch them, we can prohibit them from trespassing."

3M agreed in October to remove in December the eight signs it acknowledges to be on NCRA right of way. "We determined that those signs are on their property, they wanted them taken down so we will take them down," said 3M's St. Louis-based attorney Greg Smith. At least two were removed in late November.

But those eight will be the only ones removed, said Smith. He dismissed the railroad's claim to ownership or control of the land on which other billboards sit. "We have no intention to take (the other signs) down."

Five other 3M billboards are on the wildlife refuge property, which was acquired in the 1970s. "They are not compatible with the purposes of a wildlife refuge," said Manager Kevin Foerster, who noted that the refuge has been seeking their removal since 1990.

"They don't fit in with the scenic values ... and from a wildlife and habitat standpoint, the marsh habitat below the billboards is affected from all the trampling when they go out to change the billboards."

The federal solicitor working on the case was not available for comment. Foerster said that the company is seeking compensation from the federal government before it removes any billboards.

A 3M spokesman in St. Paul, Minn., acknowledged that the company would experience "a huge loss financially" in removing the billboards, but declined to specify what compensation the company is seeking.

The billboards also have many local supporters. Dennis Wood, a Pacific Lumber manager who sits on the NCRA board, voted against seeking their removal. "I felt the railroad authority could not afford to lose the revenues at this time," he said. He estimated the annual income at between $20,000 and $30,000.

Wood also believes the advertising space is important to local businesses that depend on attracting tourists. "The business community in Humboldt County supported the railroad, and I felt that the business owners who advertise on these signs would be negatively impacted."

Support for these and other billboards was rallied by local chambers of commerce when a proposal to include U.S. Highway 101 from Eureka to the Oregon line in a Tri-State Scenic Byway was raised by Caltrans earlier this year. Many business owners objected to any removal of billboard-advertising opportunities.

"We want the area to be more scenic and attractive to visitors, but we also want to bring visitors into town," said Jody Hansen of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce. "Without appropriate signage people aren't necessarily going to turn off the freeway."

A Caltrans spokesman said the Scenic Byway designation would not cause removal of any billboards, but would prohibit construction of new billboards in the highway corridor.

Some local businesses and governments aren't convinced. Reflecting concerns about restrictions on billboard advertising, the Eureka City Council voted in May to ask Caltrans to start the byway at Indianola Cutoff.

But the county Public Works Department supports the scenic byway proposal. The department favors an advertising technique that may satisfy billboard opponents and supporters: using federal money to purchase and remove some individual billboards and construct a group billboard to advertise 10 or more tourist-oriented businesses.

"Something that's tasteful and nonintrusive but still lets people know what businesses are off the highway," said Don Tuttle, environmental services manager.

"The trick is to get the funds to do it. Transportation enhancement funds will be available, but if locals refuse to have 101 designated as a scenic highway, we of course lose that opportunity," said Tuttle.

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