More billboards allowed along Oregon highways


An Oregon Supreme Court free speech ruling and the Measure 37 property rights law have combined to open state highways to more billboard advertising.

Billboards remain popular because they attract consumer attention. Demand for the limited number of signs pushes advertising rates up to as much as $15,000 a month in the Portland area.

At least 100 highway billboards have been put up in the past two years, pitting supporters of scenic vistas against businesses and property owners.

This spring, a farmer set up twin 75-foot-tall billboards along U.S. 26 near the neighboring family farm of Jon Ellertson. The signs grew from a successful Measure 37 property rights claim, filed by family members wanting to help their 88-year-old mother live her life out in comfort.

The billboards shocked Ellertson, who lives in Boston and remembers his home state as a place that reined in roadside ads.

"To me, billboards are a blight, they're polluting," said Ellertson. "Whatever happened to the Highway Beautification Act? Apparently it has no teeth anymore."

The federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 threatened to cut road money to states that didn't control billboards.

The act &

famously championed by former first lady Lady Bird Johnson &

tried to preserve highway vistas by concentrating signs in commercial and industrial zones.

Oregon went further with its law, passed six years later. The state assigned a permit number to billboards on state and federal highways, then bought and dismantled thousands of old signs that no longer complied with the rules, said Amy Joyce, sign program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Owners of dismantled signs got credits to build new ones. But they could build only if they found a new, legal location.

The effect, Joyce said, was a cap of about 2,500 billboard permits, including hundreds of relocation credits for unbuilt boards. The cap was unique, she said, leaving Oregon with among the fewest signs per highway mile in the nation.

The law "caused a huge stir," said former Gov. Barbara Roberts, who was a political activist at the time. "People said 'What are they thinking? The world will come to an end if people don't know where our businesses are.' "

But in March 2006, a Medford sign company convinced the state Supreme Court that the Oregon Department of Transportation's method for issuing permits was unconstitutional, violating the state's sweeping protection of free expression.

The decision set off a building boom that lasted until the Legislature established a new permit system in May. No one knows exactly how many signs went up. An informal count from city and county planners along Interstates 5 and 84 turned up at least 100 new boards.

"This has been one of the craziest years I've ever seen in the industry," said Corey Shumway, general manager of Lamar Outdoor Advertising in Oregon and Washington, which added about 50 signs. "There was a perception this was the wild wild West."

Sign companies should be able to build more boards with some of the state's 700 unused relocation credits. But as the industry consolidated over the years, the majority of the state credits wound up in the hands of just two large companies, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor.

Relocation credits "are worth $35,000 to $100,000 each &

if somebody is willing to sell them," which rarely happens, said Shumway. "There's a lot of frustration and resentment by a lot of small operators, because they've been literally prevented from operating in the business."

In urban areas, sign companies also fought stiff city and county restrictions, said Ed Sullivan, a Portland land-use attorney.

Some companies found an ally in Measure 37, approved by voters in 2004 to ease restrictions on property owners. Under the law, property owners must be allowed to develop their land or be compensated if land-use regulations &

such as zoning ordinances introduced after the land was purchased &

reduces its value.

The measure has given birth to at least 54 claims for signs in and around Portland. So far, three have been built.

Most were put on hold in May, after the Democratic-controlled Legislature gave local governments an extra year to handle claims. Those claims await an uncertain fate this fall, when voters consider a proposed rewrite of the measure that, among other things, could rule out commercial projects.

Backers of the unbuilt signs proposed under Measure 37 are waiting to see whether voters eliminate commercial projects. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who led legislative negotiations on the rewrite, says Oregon voters didn't expect more roadside signs under Measure 37.

Others say billboards are being used as political bogeymen to scare voters into a rewrite. The signs represent only a scrap of the state's 7,500 Measure 37 claims, said Dave Hunnicutt, president Oregonians in Action, author of the measure.

"If the Legislature would have dealt with them specifically, we wouldn't have squawked much," he said. "It could have been part of a reasonable compromise. But instead, the Legislature went against all commercial and industrial property owners' protections. They killed an ant with a howitzer."

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