April 25, 2011

Battle approaches about billboard law

Hearings this week on 2 proposals that weaken state’s landmark legislation

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA -- Another battle between environmentalists and Maine businesses is looming, about two bills that would weaken the state's decades-old ban on billboards.

For more than 30 years, Maine has banned the large advertising signs, along with only Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii. The signs' supporters are optimistic that they can repeal or modify the state's strict law now that Republicans have control in the State House and the Blaine House.

"Essentially what we are trying to do is make small businesses more accessible to the traveling public," said state Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, the sponsor of L.D. 1405, which would loosen Maine's law regarding signs on properties of business owners. The bill would allow the signs to be larger and visible from interstate highways. It would not allow signs off business properties.

"This is not meant to create a huge proliferation of signs all over the place; it's really meant to make the signs we do put up provide information that's more readily available to the traveler," Keschl said.

Another bill, L.D. 1367, sponsored by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, would allow billboards to line Maine highways for fees that would help pay for road maintenance.

Paul Lessard, co-owner of Neokraft Signs in Lewiston, worked with Keschl on his proposal. Lessard said it would align Maine's law related to signs on private property with federal law.

"It's sort of trying to fix a few things in Maine; it isn't throwing out the law," he said. "The question is, what is reasonable? It doesn't have to look like New Jersey."

Lessard said any community that wanted tighter restrictions would be free to impose them, under Keschl's proposal.

"If you are driving through Portland, Augusta or Bangor, you can see a sign and it sort of fits the environment; but if you drive by (Mount) Katahdin, you're not going to see a sign. It's not appropriate and the (state Department of Transportation) still controls that," he said.

Pete Didisheim, a policy adviser with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said his group doesn't see significant differences between the proposals.

"Both of these are a frontal attack on Maine's billboard law, which has been successful," he said. "I think there is no question that these will increase the road clutter caused by billboards. Yes, they might not look like the most offensive billboards you might see in some other states; but they would be clearly noticeable as they change the driving experience in the state of Maine."

Didisheim said much has changed since the approximately 8,500 billboards that dotted Maine roadsides were removed more than 30 years ago, and businesses now have more effective ways of advertising.

"We don't believe that road signage would have a material benefit, in terms of directing drivers to places, anywhere close to what the Internet has provided," he said, noting that millions of people own -- and travel with -- smart phones that provide easy and ubiquitous access to the Internet.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, was the state's transportation commissioner when Maine's last billboards were taken down. He said Mainers were correct in making the difficult choice to ban the signs.

"I think time has rendered that to be a very good decision, a right decision, that has fit very well with how we see ourselves and how other people see us in terms of the importance of the environment to our state and how it fits into the business agenda," he said.

Connors said he has not looked at either bill very closely, but he would "guard very carefully" against any changes to the current law.

"I can't tell you the number of times -- even today, years and years later -- people will comment on how wonderful it is and how much they appreciate the openness of our highways to be able to see the surrounding environment," he said. "I think you may take it for granted, but it has become part of our brand, our quality of life."

Both proposals are scheduled to have public hearings at 1 p.m. Tuesday before the Legislature's Transportation Committee.

Rebekah Metzler -- 620-7016


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