A billboard that was cut down and then resurrected, both without permission.

CBS Outdoor, the company that owns about 20 billboards along the Hwy. 101 “safety corridor” between Arcata and Eureka, cannot sue the California Coastal Commission and other government agencies over a requirement to remove those billboards — at least it can’t sue yet — according to a ruling issued last week by Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson.

As you may recall, the Coastal Commission had made removal of those billboards — “to the maximum extent feasible” — a condition of approval for Caltrans’ planned 101 corridor improvement project. The project aims to improve safety and reduce delays by making structural changes to the corridor, including median closures at most intersections, a half signal at the Airport Boulevard intersection and an overpass at Indianola Boulevard.

Billboard removal was included as a condition, one of four such conditions of approval, as a way to mitigate the loss of scenic bay views once the overpass is erected. (Other conditions include putting a Class 1 bicycle trail in the project plans, wetland mitigation and planning for sea-level rise.)

In response, CBS Outdoor filed a lawsuit against the Coastal Commission, as well as Caltrans and the Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG), arguing that forced removal of those billboards would deprive the company of its property rights. The company’s lawyers also argued that the Coastal Commission didn’t give CBS Outdoors enough notice about its decision, thus violating its due process rights.

In his ruling, filed Friday, Judge Watson said that it’s too early to sue — or, in legalese, “this matter is not ripe” — because CBS hasn’t been ordered to remove any billboards yet.

“Caltrans is only required to submit a plan that satisfies the Executive Director” of the Coastal Commission, the ruling points out. “[T]he submitted plan could possibly conclude that removing CBS’s billboards is infeasible,” among other possibilities, the ruling states. Caltrans has yet to even apply for a coastal development permit on the project, so the lawsuit is premature, Watson ruled.

A footnote, here: In October CBS Outdoor, one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the world, rebranded itself as Outfront Media. New name, same company.

HCAOG was lumped into the lawsuit because it’s in charge of arranging financing for the project. Reached by phone this afternoon, HCAOG Executive Director Marcella Clem said, “I’m very happy.” The decision to dismiss the case “saved the public money,” she added. “And we’ll just wait for the Coastal Commission hearing.”

In the meantime, it remains unclear exactly whose ground those billboards sit on. The Humboldt County Public Works Department did a location assessment back in 2007 and found that 16 of 18 billboards surveyed were located on land owned by the North Coast Railroad Authority, a public agency that hasn’t officially given permission for the billboards. But exact property lines have been tough to identify since, according to Caltrans, some of the historical documents spelling it out are more than a century old.

Caltrans recently completed its own survey of the land along the corridor (a project that began roughly a year ago) and submitted it to the county for certification. If the county surveyors disagree with Caltrans’ analysis then the two agencies will have to square their findings before the matter can be clarified.

Meanwhile, Caltrans continues to move forward with planning the 101 improvement project. 

Caltrans spokesman Eli Rohl said this afternoon, “Basically [the court] said to come back when something has actually happened.”

If the past is any precedent, Outfront Media (née CBS Outdoor) will do just that. A call to the company’s lawyers was not returned by 5 p.m.