by A.J. Higgins
Maine Public news story
A pair of bills has surfaced in the Legislature’s Transportation Committee that would try to help the cash-strapped state DOT find new ways to build and maintain roads. But a provision for billboards in one bill, and the option for business signs in another, created an uproar during public hearings, where critics turned out in force to let lawmakers know that they don’t want to repeal the state’s 34-year ban on billboard advertising.
Republican state Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley would like to generate more money for improvements to Maine’s highways. His bill, LD 1367, suggests a number of options, such as redirecting money from leases on state highway property to DOT accounts, and dedicating motor vehicle fines for road work.
But his proposal to rethink the state’s 34-year-old ban on billboard advertising attracted more than a dozen of opponents to a public hearing on the bill before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
“I think there are some opportunities where a few billboards wouldn’t hurt a thing–they would help businesses, they would help direct traffic to those businesses,” Thomas said.
Thomas says that in addition to providing new revenue for road improvements, reinstituting billboards would provide Maine businesses with a once-popular means to generate sales.
“In my district there’s a restaurant, that as long as they had a small billboard by the road they were able to stay open, but when the state made them take down that billboard, that drove enough business away so that they had to close,” Thomas said. “How many jobs do we lose, and how do we affect our business climate because we don’t allow our people to use one of the most effective ways there is to advertise?”
Thomas, who is a member of the Transportation Committee, at one point was grilled by Democratic state Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham about where reinstating billboards could lead.
Thomas: “I don’t have in mind a billboard on every stretch of road in Maine, but I think that we could find 25 or 50 to start and let’s see how it works.”
Diamond: “The potential, though, under what you just described could be hundreds and hundreds of more billboards–maybe thousands.”
Thomas: “Only if we allow it. But I think it’s an opportunity to make some money and fix some roads without going up on taxes.”
Meanwhile, state Rep. Dennis Keschl of Belgrade has offered LD 1405 as a way to allow businesses to place large road signs on their own property to advertise their businesses–even if that property is also within sight of the Interstate. He says that aspect of the bill is also generating a lot of criticism.
“One of the elements that they’re not okay with is the fact that it also allows for signs if a person has property within such proximity of the turnpike, they can put a sign up that’s higher than normal right now with a surface area of 400 square feet, but local communities can restrict that–they don’t have to accept that,” he said.
With local town budgets also coping with rising costs, Amanda Russell of Edgecomb says the “just say no” approach doesn’t always gain much traction with voters. “Think how difficult it is to say ‘no’s to any kind of revenue when you’re a little town, starving for money. I mean, even what we did in Edgecomb on Route 1 and Route 27, it was very, very difficult, and they were really great ordinances that protected our town, and people understand that now–but it was a fight when we were going through it,” Russell said.
“I oppose any form of billboards,” said Portland resident Nick Hall. “I know that from experience from living in two other big cities, Dallas, Texas, and New York City–they are ugly.”
Hall expressed a shared view of many of the billboard bills’s critics. One of the champions of the anti-billboard campaign in 1977 is now nearing her 94th birthday. Marion Fuller Brown, of York, a former GOP lawmaker, was unable to attend the hearing on the bills, but her daughter, Emily Fuller Hawkins, of Deer Isle, made it clear that her mother is not happy that billboards could come back.
“The current efforts to chip away at Maine’s environmental achievements enacted between the 1960s and today have caused her great distress–hearing about LD 1367, section 7, has just about done her in,” Fuller Hawkins said.
The billboard bills are also opposed by the Maine Chamber of Commerce and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.