This billboard owned by Outfront Media is one of several around Humboldt Bay located in tidal wetlands. It fell over in November and has been disintegrating ever since. | Photo courtesy Jennifer Kalt, Humboldt Baykeeper.

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Billboards should not exist in the tidal wetlands of Humboldt Bay. That’s the stance that commissioners of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District took last week when they directed staff to develop a policy that prohibits all new billboards within the agency’s jurisdiction and may even prevent sign owners from making repairs to damaged signs. 

The stance is rooted in the state’s public trust doctrine, but Geoff Wills, owner of Eureka-based AllPoints Signs, says the Harbor District’s position amounts to an illegal “take” of his property — namely, the fallen Chevron billboard pictured above — and he plans to sue.

“They’re trying to make it so you can’t rebuild, can’t do anything, even repairs and maintenance,” he told the Outpost in a phone interview earlier today. “For us, it’s almost good they went so extreme, because it’s so illegal it makes [the policy] easy to overturn.”

Wills said the billboard in question, which fell over during the powerful storm this past Thanksgiving week, is a legally existing structure, and therefore the government can’t take it from him without offering just compensation, per the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But Jennifer Kalt, executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, said the billboard was constructed without any permits and has no legal protections.

“There’s been a lot of talk over the years about how these billboards were ‘grandfathered in’ because they were built before zoning laws … but our attorneys researched it, and there can be no legally vested right that impairs public trust resources,” Kalt said.

In California, all tidelands, submerged lands, and navigable waters are held in public trust, a status that generally limits permitted uses to water-dependent activities, including commerce, fisheries, navigation, ecological preservation and recreation.

Larry Oetker, the Harbor District’s executive director, said the agency’s official billboard policy has yet to be written, and staff is trying to balance the rights of property owners with the duties of government to protect the public trust.

“We’re going to come back to the board with some [policy] options,” he said, “but generally the direction from the board [at last week’s meeting] was that there wouldn’t be any new billboards allowed, and if one fell down [the owner] wouldn’t be able to rebuild it.”

Billboards along the safety corridor aren’t the only ones built in the tidelands of Humboldt Bay. There are also some west of Hwy. 101 south of Eureka.

Harbor District staff will do some research before making a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners at a future meeting. “The big question that’s going to come up,” Oetker said, “is, ‘What is the level — if any — of maintenance that will be allowed?’ That will be the key question, and we will have to review the laws as far as any restrictions.”

This conflict is the latest development in a long and contentious campaign to remove as many billboards as possible from the Hwy. 101 corridor between Arcata and Eureka. Attentive commuters have no doubt noticed that there are far fewer than there used to be. In fact, 18 of the roadside ads on that stretch have been removed since 2012, according to Kalt, who’s kept close tabs on the situation.

Some were cut down by vandals, others felled by wind or errant drivers, though the majority were removed thanks to a 2016 deal between Caltrans and outdoor advertising company Outfront Media, which allowed 10 signs to be removed in exchange for more signs in Southern California.

Caltrans, as you may recall, was ordered by the California Coastal Commission in 2013 to remove all the billboards along the safety corridor “to the extent feasible” as a condition of approval for its long-planned Eureka-Arcata Route 101 Corridor Improvement Project. Another condition was that construction couldn’t begin until the funding and right-of-way for a Class 1 bike and pedestrian trail were in place.

While the signs have their defenders, many consider them to be an eyesore, a crass “visual blight” blocking views of the bay, and the Coastal Commission agreed. 

But the task of removing them has been periodically stymied by the surprisingly difficult task of figuring out exactly whose property each sign was built on and which government agencies have regulatory authority over them. 

The Chevron sign is a case in point: Last month we reported that the Humboldt County Planning Commission would decide the fate of two billboards that fell over during that Nov. 27 storm. (Permits are required to repair them.)

In researching the matter, however, county staff determined that one of the two — the Chevron sign swimming in the photo above — doesn’t fall within county jurisdiction because it was built on land that’s at or below the mean high tide line. That makes it the jurisdiction of the Harbor District. 

The parcel it sits on and the parcel next to it are co-owned by Geoff Wills and his wife and Tom McMurray. This pair of parcels hold four of the few remaining billboards left on the Arcata-Eureka corridor, and the county is hoping to purchase the property.

Hank Seemann, the county’s deputy director of environmental services, explained that the county is working to acquire the right-of-way necessary to connect the Humboldt Bay Trail between Arcata and Eureka. Staff was in the process of making a proposal to purchase these two parcels when the Thanksgiving storm knocked down one of the billboards. The value of the property will be affected by whether or not the sign can be repaired. 

The county is also looking to purchase parcels in Bracut and Green Diamond’s mill property at Brainard. Caltrans has given the county $2 million that was originally programmed to support the safety improvement project in the corridor but may now be used to acquire parcels along the right-of-way and for environmental permitting, Seemann said. 

Wills told the Outpost that he, his wife and McMurray are willing to sell those two parcels, which would leave the billboards in the county’s hands. 

“We’ve been going through this for almost a year,” he said. “We’re just waiting to finalize the number to sell to the county.”

But as long as he’s an owner on the land, he plans to fight for his property rights. While he hasn’t yet filed suit against the Harbor District, he said, “Letters are already being sent letting them know that what they’re doing is illegal.”

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Note: This post has been updated to clarify the Coastal Commission’s conditions of approval for the Route 101 Corridor Improvement Project.