AUGUSTA — Maine’s pioneering law banning highway billboards has withstood the test of time since it was enacted in 1977, but the spirit of highway beautification is under siege at the State House.
Lawmakers are lining up to promote nine bills that would grant variances to state sign regulations for individual businesses and attractions.
“Everybody wants a sign,” Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said Wednesday in testimony in favor of a bill that would help a snowmobile club in his town keep a sign.
However, managers of Maine roads and a major environmental group say all this has legislators on a slippery slope. Maine has strong laws restricting sign use, but piecemeal requests, if granted, would whittle sign laws down, they say.
So far, the Maine Department of Transportation has requested all such bills be postponed, and the Legislature’s Transportation Committee already has tabled three such bills this session.
Three more are set to be heard, and the committee has set up a subcommittee to tackle signage issues as a whole.
It heard three others Wednesday morning — proposals to exempt snowmobile clubs from certain MaineDOT sign regulations and to put up new signs for a historical site in Brewer and the Oxford Casino.
“Each is of value on its own, in isolation; but I urge you to think about the cumulative impact of these various requests,” said Peter Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, which opposes all nine bills. “There’s a balance that needs to be struck, and I think existing guidelines that allow signage to be placed in the state of Maine for important reasons is a good balance.”
The legislative requests aren’t partisan, and all are rooted in supposed local merits.
In testimony, Rep. Roger Jackson, R-Oxford, cited the casino’s “incredible economic boost” to his region as the reason why he’s asking for signs directing traffic to the casino near Gray and Auburn exits on the Maine Turnpike.
Rep. Joseph Brooks of Winterport, an unenrolled liberal, spoke in favor of the snowmobilers’ request, which Brooks said started when the DOT asked a snowmobile club in his town to remove a sign from a state route because its presence there is illegal. Thibodeau also spoke in favor of the bill.
And Rep. Richard Campbell, R-Orrington, is proposing that the DOT erect signs in Brewer and on Interstate 95 and Interstate 395, a five-mile connector from Bangor to Brewer, pointing drivers to the Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer, a historic site honoring Maine’s Civil War-era history and its participation in the Underground Railroad, a network of safehouses used by 19th-century black slaves escaping to freedom.
“This site is a memorial in recognition of Brewer’s legacy as a birthplace of leaders of important institutions and causes,” said Rep. Arthur Verow, D-Brewer, speaking in favor of the bill. “That’s why I believe this site is worthy of a sign to help visitors experience this place of important historical significance.”
However, in testimony on two bills Tuesday, DOT legislative liaison Nina Fisher said the snowmobile club bill could lead to other nonprofit groups requesting similar exemptions. The Brewer signs, she said, would be in nonconformance with federal standards.
“Without a clear policy, there is no way to say no to other signs once you say yes to another,” Fisher said. “Signs could eventually become meaningless as they get lost in sign noise.”
Dan Morin, a spokesman for the Maine Turnpike Authority, told the committee the turnpike — the stretch of Interstate 95 from Kittery to Augusta — already has 49 signs that are out of step with federal standards, including 19 that were legislatively mandated. The casino sign also wouldn’t meet guidelines.
Morin said though the Oxford Casino meets traffic standards that could warrant road signs, it’s the authority’s policy to not erect signs for private businesses, though many have them. For example, he said Sunday River, a Newry ski resort, has a legislatively mandated sign.
“It’s a traffic generator,” Morin said. “It just may not qualify under our guidelines.”
Scott Smith, a spokesman for Oxford Casino, said the casino estimates it has drawn 360,000 visitors via the turnpike and around 600,000 overall. Michael Mahoney, a lobbyist for that casino’s main rival, Hollywood Casino in Bangor, proposed a “friendly amendment” to the bill that would add that casino’s name to a sign that will be erected once a new civic center in Bangor opens.
Some on the committee seemed keen on an Oxford Casino sign.
Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel, said Maine’s reputation as a vacation state warrants signs pointing the way to large attractions.
“You need to get them to their location when they’re coming from out of state or from other parts of the state as quickly as you can with directional signs,” he said.
In 1977, Maine became the first state in America to ban off-premises billboards. Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii have passed similar laws since then.
On-premises signs within 1,000 feet of a business are legal, but are subject to a bevy of requirements, including a 25-foot height limit. Changeable signs also can’t change more than every 20 minutes per Maine law unless municipalities choose to enforce a less strict law and notify the state.
Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, has a bill before the Legislature that would loosen on-premises sign restrictions, increasing the maximum height to 35 feet and maximum distance from a business to 1,500 feet. It also would allow signs to change once a minute.
A similar bill he sponsored in 2011 was attacked by opposition as a “billboard bill,” which Keschl rejected. A Republican majority killed the bill.
Other sign bills this session include requests for signs pointing drivers to Lee Academy in Penobscot County, Berwick Academy in York County, Gould Academy in Bethel and other sites.
Didisheim, of the Natural Resources Council, used those schools to make a slippery-slope argument relating to all entities.
“Lots of people go to those schools, but why just those?” he said. “Lots of public high schools, thousands of people go to.”
But Rep. Ann Peoples, D-Westbrook, suggested the size of the requesting entity probably will be the main issue as the committee goes forward.
“When you’re attracting thousands of people a week, that’s a big difference between a private academy that only has a couple hundred students,” she said. “Those are the things we’re wrestling with.”
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652