Before passage of pioneering legislation in 1977, Maine highways were lined with billboards advertising everything from motels and car dealerships to cigarettes and junk food. The “billboard ban” law, which took effect on January 1, 1978, slowly worked over many years to decommission and dismantle existing billboard advertisements along major roadways in the state. The final sign, a double-sided billboard in York County, came down in 1984. Today, the scenic landscapes unmarred by gaudy advertisements that unfold for motorists as they cross the state have become, as Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, put it: “part of Maine’s quality of place.”
The initiative began in 1976, Governor James Longley directed Maine’s Conservation Department to see what could be done about the “billboard problem.” Recognizing that Maine’s tourism industry was dependent upon the state’s aesthetic resources, he was concerned about the visual blight the signs were creating in a state known for its natural beauty. The Conservation Department provided the governor with several options, including an option based on Vermont’s 1968 law banning billboards entirely and establishing a standardized directional sign system. Integral to Maine’s billboard ban was Marion Fuller Brown, a Republican member of the Maine House of Representatives (1966-1972) who dedicated herself to the bill and its passage. As the bill’s sponsor, she later said, “The natural environment is so important to the Maine people that Republicans and Democrats get together to save [it],” emphasizing the necessity of bipartisanship for protecting the natural beauty of Maine.
When legislation to ban billboards was introduced in the Legislature, NRCM participated as a member of an ad hoc committee of bill sponsors and concerned individuals and organizations, discussing strategy and organizing grassroots support for the bill’s passage. NRCM reached out to prominent business leaders seeking letters of support, visited with major newspapers’ editorial staff to explain the bill, and worked to keep citizens informed about the bill’s provisions and progress. This work proved highly effective; it resulted in more than 135 business and organizational endorsements, many highly supportive editorial columns, and legislators being deluged with letters in support of the bill’s passage. When the bill was passed and signed into law on July 13, 1977, Governor Longley highlighted the importance of NRCM’s work; stating that, “citizen support was a key to the bill’s success and… NRCM helped immeasurably in that regard.”
In its almost 40-year history the “billboard ban” law has faced several tests. Most recently, in 2013, nine separate bills were introduced requesting variances to state sign regulations. Joining with the Maine Department of Transportation, NRCM successfully defeated these proposals, arguing that such exceptions would unjustifiably weaken the law.
The success of Maine’s “billboard ban” has led other states to enact similar legislation. The law, and the overwhelming citizen support that led to its passage, represents many significant things about the people of Maine: a deep appreciation for the natural beauty of our state; a valuing of “our quality of place,” and the wisdom and understanding to declare such things priceless.