A billboard near Elk River, south of Eureka, blew over during high winds back in November. | Photo courtesy Humboldt Baykeeper.

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In a “virtual” meeting Thursday evening, the Humboldt County Planning Commission voted 4-2 to deny a special permit that would have allowed Eureka’s AllPoints Sign Company to rebuild a billboard that was toppled by high winds back in November.

The decision, which will almost certainly be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, was just the latest skirmish in a 40-year battle over billboards along U.S. Highway 101 near Humboldt Bay.

In this instance, nonprofits such as Humboldt Baykeeper and Keep Eureka Beautiful opposed billboard reconstruction on environmental and aesthetic grounds.

The sign has been located in the coastal wetlands near Elk River for at least 65 years, according to a staff report and historic photographs. Its construction predates all the zoning and building codes that would apply to any new structures.

So the debate at last night’s meeting focused largely on the question of whether rebuilding the sign constitute repair or new construction. 

County staff had recommended approving the special permit, reasoning, in part, that AllPoints merely wants to repair the sign, which is considered a “lawful non-conforming” structure. The term effectively means that the billboard predates the rules and is thus not governed by them. 

Jennifer Kalt, director of the environmental nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper, told the Outpost that sign companies usually don’t bother applying for permits to rebuild fallen signs. Instead, they simply rush out and rebuild them without permission. And she scoffed at the notion that this particular sign dates back more than half a century.

“There’s probably not a single board left from the 1940s, let’s face it,” she said.

The Outpost left a voicemail for AllPoints owner Geoff Wills but did not hear back from him before this post went up. He called in to last night’s meeting to urge the commission to approve the permit, and he pushed back against an assertion from at-large Commissioner Melanie McCavour, who had argued that rebuilding the sign would represent new construction.

“Have you even been out to see it?” Wills asked the commission. “It’s not a completely destroyed structure. We’re not building something new.”

Fourth District Commissioner Mike Newman agreed. “This is a repair … ,” he said, “I’ve seen the billboard. It’s just laying over on its back.”

But Third District Commissioner Noah Levy was vehemently opposed to allowing the sign to be rebuilt. He accused planning staffers of going out of their way to get to a “yes” on the project. “To do so they had to bend over backwards, close one eye, squint the other and stand on one leg, is what it feels like to me,” he said.

Commissioners and staff members alike admitted confusion over the course of the discussion, which involved numerous and sometimes conflicting rules from a variety of permitting agencies, including the county, the California Coastal Commission and the California Department of Transportation, or Caltrans. 

Screenshot from Thursday’s meeting.

Eventually, Newman made a motion to approve the special permit, and Commission Chair Alan Bongio, who represents the First District, offered a second. But the other four members voted no. (One of the seven seats on the commission remains vacant after former chair Robert Morris resigned back in December following the Board of Supervisors’ contentious Terra-Gen wind farm decision.)

Once Newman’s motion fell flat, another wave of confusion washed over commissioners as they struggled over how to proceed. Ford explained that they needed to actually pass a resolution, not just reject one. The commission eventually moved on to other business to give staff time to write up a new resolution, per commissioners’ guidance, and at the end of the meeting they finally put it to a vote.

Levy made the motion, saying the billboard does not comply with current zoning and building standards and would be detrimental to the public welfare. McCavour seconded the motion. Only Newman and Bongio voted against it. 

Reached by phone today, Kalt said she’s happy with the decision, though she expects it to be appealed. Her larger goal, though, is for the county to finally develop an umbrella policy governing billboard construction and maintenance countywide.

“This county has been talking for 40 years about regulating these things [billboards] to get them out of scenic and coastal wetland areas, and it’s time to just do it,” she said.