Storm winds as environmental vigilante? County questions billboard rebuilding

January 30, 2008


Posted 1/30/2008

Powerful winds ripping across San Luis Obispo County in recent weeks battered, bent and broke numerous billboards along the Highway 101 and Highway 1 corridors, and now county officials are considering denying replacement of damaged signs.

The county’s enforcement chief, however, sees an uphill battle, predicting that the outdoor advertising companies “will win this one.”

Art Trinidade, the county planning department’s chief investigator, told Wednesday that the storms offered an opportunity for officials to re-examine “off-site” signs (those not located at a business). A county ordinance prohibits new sign construction even when a “grandfathered” sign is destroyed by an act of God or nature.

In addition, far-reaching, often-challenged state signage laws also attempt to control the proliferation of the very visible roadside advertisements. Generally, the state’s law allows but attempts to control signs along freeways and main roads in business areas, and prohibits them entirely in landscape areas.

In the aftermath of the storms, however, it is county planning department officials who have stalled repair of numerous signs, yet allowed repair of others. In the process, they have re-ignited an ongoing, large-stakes skirmish with behemoth outdoor advertising corporations.

Trinidade said “we’re in the middle of it [the ordinance’s re-examination] right now. What we are doing is determining at what level we can allow them to build, rebuild, or not build, based on the amount of destruction at the site.”

CBS Outdoor, whose corporate logo adorns roadside signs nationwide, owns dozens of signs in this county; some in key locations sustained at least a degree of damage in the storm. One of the most visible is at the bottom of the Cuesta Grade on the northbound side and was knocked on its side, its posts snapped.

Trenton Suntrapak, market manager for CBS Outdoor in Fresno, said the company “is working with county officials to resolve the matter in a timely fashion.”

The same prohibition did not deter at least one self-reliant local advertiser. A sign bearing a message for Smitty’s Bail Bonds on the southbound side of Highway 101 between Atascadero and Santa Margarita was being repaired earlier in the week.

A man who answered the phone at Smitty’s and identified himself as “one of the bosses” said his company’s signs were “exempt” from regulation because “they’re grandfathered in. We aren’t under the same rules” as corporate giants like CBS Outdoor.