Public Hearings on Billboard Legislation

-Lock Kiermaier

On Tuesday, April 26th, the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation held Public Hearings on two bills which propose significant changes in the current regulation of highway signage. LD 1367, sponsored by Senator Doug Thomas, includes a provision which would allow the limited leasing of property for the placement of billboards on certain highways. LD 1405, sponsored by Representative Dennis Keschl, proposes to significantly expand the current limitations on on-premise signage.

Both Public Hearings were well attended and several print and television media outlets were there to report on the proceedings. Although current legislative procedure requires separate public hearings and testimony on LDs which have a similar purpose, most of the testimony that was offered to the committee was lumped together and presented to the Transportation Committee on LD 1367 which was heard first. The bill's sponsor, Senator Thomas, was the sole person who testified in favor of the LD. In his comments regarding the billboard proposal, Senator Thomas emphasized that his proposal should be considered as but one of a multitude of proposals in the bill that sought to raise much needed revenue for the purpose of maintaining Maine's secondary road network. Senator Thomas also stressed that his proposal to allow billboards was a limited one and should be regarded as a pilot project.

Testimony presented in opposition to LD 1367 and LD 1405 had a significant emotional component with the invocation of former State Representative Marion Fuller Brown, a Republican from York, who is considered by many to be the person most responsible for the passage of Maine's landmark restrictions on highway billboards and signage. Ms. Brown is now in her nineties and was unable to attend the hearings because of health issues but was ably represented by testimony from her daughters Emily Fuller Hawkins of Deer Isle and Martha Fuller Clark who is a state senator from New Hampshire and a current property owner in Maine. Testimony from Representative Brown's daughters forcefully maintained that the proposed legislation would effectively undue the current restrictions on billboards and other highway signage and concluded that passage of either bill would be tantamount to opening Pandora's Box.

Along with a large number of other concerned organizations and individuals and in keeping with its previous testimony in opposition to LD 135, "An Act To Allow the Placement of Certain Road Signs That Advertise a Small Business", GrowSmart Maine offered testimony in strong opposition to both LDs. The GrowSmart Maine testimony focused on the fact that current billboard and signage restrictions were working exactly as intended to significantly protect Maine's unique Quality of Place and as such, represented a powerful tool which promotes sustainable economic development and tourism for all parts of the state. A large number of individuals from many different parts of the state also testified in opposition to the proposed legislation and their various testimonies mentioned the blight of excessive road signage, the outdated nature of large signs as a means of effective advertising in the era of widespread computerized communication and Maine's reputation as one of the few state's that effectively restrict billboards and excessive highway signage. Other prominent organizations that testified in opposition included Scenic America, the Natural Resource Council of Maine, the Maine Tourism Association, the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association.

Strong support for LD 1405 was offered by the bill's sponsor Representative Keschl and one of the co-sponsors, Senator Tom Saviello. Both legislators emphasized that the provisions of LD 1405 were limited to on-premise signs and did not pertain to what is commonly thought of as "billboards". In addition, both legislators maintained that the changes proposed in LD 1405 represented a much needed and reasonable update of current laws pertaining to highway signage. Additional testimony in favor of LD 1405 was presented by representatives of the International Sign Association, the Maine Sign Association, the Maine Realtors Association and various individuals who maintained that current restrictions are unreasonable and significantly hinder economic development and job creation.

A Work Session for both LDs has been scheduled by the Transportation Committee for Thursday, May 5th at 1 PM in Room 126 of the Maine Statehouse.