- Planning Commission Denies Permit to Rebuild a Fallen Billboard South of Eureka
- TODAY in SUPES: After a Marathon Debate, Board Postpones Permit Decision for Fallen Billboard
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday spent another two hours debating the fate of a billboard that was felled by wind last November, ultimately voting 3-2 to allow owner AllPoints Sign Company to rebuild the structure. However, in doing so, the three-member board majority added a provision that will require the sign, which sits in wetlands along the Elk River, to be permanently removed within five years.
That’s assuming it gets rebuilt. If AllPoints owner Geoff Wills accepts this five-year provision, he’ll still need to get approval from the California Coastal Commission before rebuilding the billboard.
Like previous billboard debates in local government (and there have been many over the years), today’s discussion ranged beyond the particulars of this one sign. In effect, it was an argument between competing sets of values, where private property rights and jobs were placed in opposition to environmental concerns and stewardship of the public trust.
Back in May, the Humboldt County Planning Commission voted 4-2 to deny the special permit required to re-erect the sign, which is considered a legal, nonconforming structure. That means it doesn’t comply with existing planning and building codes but has been allowed to exist because it was erected before those codes were in place. It was “grandfathered in,” in other words.
Wills appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the Board of Supervisors, and he’s been represented in this matter by attorney Jeffrey Slack with Eureka firm Janssen Malloy.
In late July the board postponed a decision on the matter to give county staff time to research various questions about permitting and jurisdiction. In a staff report at the top of today’s hearing, Senior Planner Steve Lazar said that after consulting with Caltrans, the California State Lands Commission and the project’s engineer, county staff was recommending that the special permit be approved.
He warned, however, that doing so would grant Wills and AllPoints a vested right on the property. That means that if the county were to require him to take the billboard down sometime in the future, he’d be entitled to compensation.
During the public comment period, three people called in to advocate for upholding the Planning Commission’s denial of the permit. Jennifer Kalt, executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, argued that the environmental document prepared for the project was inadequate, in part because no biologist has analyzed the wetlands where the sign is situated.
“In short, I’d urge you to recognize that this billboard had a good run of many, many decades,” Kalt said, adding that it’s time to get rid of this structure standing in an environmentally sensitive habitat.
Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), seconded her comments and also questioned the adequacy of the environmental review.
When the matter came back to the board, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson took advantage of the technology available through the Zoom-enabled meeting to share his computer screen, displaying photos and schematic drawings while arguing at length against the billboard.
“What’s being asked of us is to grant an entitlement,” he said. “It’s not a vested right. We’re being asked to balance whether or not that is an appropriate thing for us to do for a nonconforming use. … We’re supposed to be protecting public trust resources for the public benefit.”
He went on to question the accuracy of the design specs and the accountability for claims made by the project engineer.
Following his comments, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn resumed the opposing stance, which he’d established at the previous meeting. He argued that the public trust doctrine doesn’t really apply here because the sign is on private property. And besides, he said, the billboard does provide a public benefit in that it supports the businesses that advertise on it — not to mention Wills’ business. Bohn said the board had asked for some specific questions to be answered at the previous hearing, and they’d all been answered satisfactorily.
“I see no reason to go against staff [recommendations],” Bohn said.
Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass took a bit of a step back, recounting her tenure on the Eureka City Council, when billboards were frequently a hot topic. She argued for “a comprehensive plan” to address the fate of nonconforming billboards countywide and said she’d like to see an agreement to eventually bring down not just this billboard but two others in the vicinity.
Wilson made a motion to grant a permit for the billboard that would expire in five years.
Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell said she wasn’t comfortable with such a short time period, saying it seemed like “underlying this [proposal] is a basic dislike of the billboard.” She suggested making it a 10-year timetable.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone, who’d been silent to this point in the debate, said he’d prefer not to allow the sign’s reconstruction at all. Wilson chimed in to again suggest his five-year permit proposal, suggesting that it would represent a compromise between Fennell’s suggested 10-year period and Madrone’s zero.
Fennell didn’t much care for that idea, saying five years didn’t seem fair to Wills.
At the suggestion of Planning and Building Director John Ford, the motion that the board wound up voting on included an indemnification agreement as a condition of approval. Thus, Wills must agree not to sue the county in order to get his permit. Staff will also write up a series of findings to support the five-year permit decision, which was approved by Wilson, Bass and Madrone, with Bohn and Fennell dissenting. The decision will become codified at a future meeting, where this item will likely appear on the board’s consent calendar.
A voicemail left for Wills was not returned by the time this post was published.