At issue: Are billboards an unmet need, or 'visual litter'?

Posted: April 27, 2011 | Senator Alfond, Transportation

Pro-business and environmental views collide at a hearing on bills that would loosen the 34-year-old ban in Maine.

By Rebekah Metzler
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA – Two daughters of the woman who led the effort to enact Maine’s 34-year-old ban on billboards testified Tuesday against proposals that they said would erode her legacy.

Marion Fuller Brown, a former Republican lawmaker from York, is now in her 90s and wanted to be at Tuesday’s public hearing, but could not for health reasons.

“The removal of the billboards is her proudest moment and her legacy to Maine’s quality of place,” said one daughter, Emily Fuller Hawkins of Deer Isle. “The current efforts to chip away at Maine’s environmental achievements enacted between the 1960s and today have caused her great distress. I’m here to convey and carry on her passion.”

Proponents said the two bills before the Legislature’s Transportation Committee would not allow unchecked proliferation of the signs. Opponents said that any weakening of the current law would create loopholes for litigation and open the floodgates for billboards.

New Hampshire state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, Brown’s other daughter, who testified against the measures, said the billboard industry is “very sophisticated.”

“You’ll be opening a Pandora’s box,” she said.

Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley, the sponsor of L.D. 1367, said that allowing billboards is only a minor portion of his bill, which is aimed at increasing funding for Maine’s rural roads without raising taxes. The legislation calls for various fundraising mechanisms, such as increasing fees for vanity plates and renting highway space for companies to place billboards.

“A few billboards wouldn’t hurt a thing,” he said. “We could pick a few spots and have a pilot program and let’s see — maybe it’s not worth doing. But let’s see if we can find some high-traffic areas where people are willing to pay rent for that space to put up a billboard.”

Rep. Dennis Keschl, R-Belgrade, said his proposal, L.D. 1405, which would allow larger on-premises signs for businesses, “does not address in any way billboards, as defined in the law.”

“These are much-needed changes that balance the public’s sensitivity surrounding the proliferation of advertising signs with the legitimate needs of the traveling public and business throughout the state,” he said.

Paul Lessard, a co-owner of Neokraft Signs in Lewiston, said Keschl’s bill would provide a more pro-business balance to the state’s current sign law.

“It changes a law that was created using a false premise that aesthetics are the be-all, end-all, without ever once being concerned about what the consequences were to the business community,” he said. “Not one billboard will be installed because of it.”

But Judy Bielecki of Belgrade said Keschl’s bill would lead to more, bigger, taller signs for people to see along Maine’s roads.

“To anyone driving by, they are not going to distinguish if it’s a billboard or an on-premise sign,” she said. “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”

Most of the testimony came from citizens and groups that oppose the bills, including the Maine Tourism Association, the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association.

They argued that Maine’s lack of large signs compared with other states enhances its “quality of place,” and pointed out the impact that technology has had on tourism.

“The reality is, in three minutes on this smartphone, I could probably get more information than 1,000 billboards could provide,” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Maine is one of four states, besides Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii, that ban billboards.

The Maine Department of Transportation and the Maine Merchants Association testified on L.D. 1405, but took no specific position on the bill.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate condemned both bills in a press release.

“Billboards are visual litter; how can we go back and legalize a visual blight on our landscape?” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland.

The committee will decide whether to endorse the bills at a work session next week.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: