AUGUSTA, Maine — Last month, Gov. Paul LePage sent a message to job creators by unveiling an interstate sign declaring Maine “Open for Business.”
The question before lawmakers on Tuesday, however, was whether Maine’s roadways should be open for billboards.
Business owners, trade groups and supporters of Maine’s 32-year-old ban on highway billboards testified on Tuesday against a pair of bills that seek to give businesses more flexibility to erect roadside signs to lure travelers into their establishments.
The bills’ authors assert they are seeking modest changes to advertising laws and have no interest in bringing back the days when billboards towered over some Maine highways and state roads.
But critics described the measures as assaults to the law that has kept the shoulders of Maine’s highways free of the oversized and sometimes garish billboards found elsewhere.
“Every time I travel out of state and return to Maine, I breathe a sigh of relief: even our highways are beautiful,” Amanda Russell of Edgecomb told members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. “No matter where you drive … there’s no trash, no bottles and no billboards.”
The highest-profile piece of legislation, LD 1405 sponsored by Republican Rep. Dennis Keschl of Belgrade, would only apply to businesses whose properties abut the roadway. The bill would allow so-called “on-premises” signs to be placed within 20 feet of the edge of highways and, as currently written, could allow signs up to 100 feet tall.
The proposal also would eliminate the prohibition on electronic signs with changing images near the interstate.
Keschl said he is willing to negotiate the height provisions and other language in his bill. But he said the measure strives to balance the needs of businesses with the public’s interest in preserving Maine’s roadside landscapes.
“My LD does not address in any way billboards,” Keschl said.
A bill by Republican Sen. Doug Thomas of Ripley, meanwhile, would allow the state transportation commissioner to authorize off-premises signs to be placed along highway rights-of-way for a fee. Proceeds would be funneled into highway maintenance budgets.
Thomas’ bill, LD 1367, states that the Department of Transportation would regulate the size, shape, color and other aesthetic aspects of the signs. And while the bill does not address the number of signs, Thomas told committee members he believed the DOT should set limits.
Thomas said he does not want to see a billboard on every street corner or in every open space. But he said there are ways to improve the state’s economy and roads.
“How many jobs do we lose and how do we affect our business climate because we don’t allow them to use one of the most effective ways to advertise?” Thomas said.
DOT officials took no position on either bill. Opponents, however, urged committee members not to venture down that road.
Representatives of the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Tourism Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association all testified in opposition to the bills, which they feared could spoil the natural beauty that draws visitors to the state.
“Our members feel that our current system does not cause undue hardship to their businesses,” said Dick Grotton with the Maine Restaurant Association.
Maine is currently one of four states that prohibit roadside billboards along with Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii. Instead, the state allows businesses to advertise along roadways via the uniform, blue-colored “logo signs” authorized by the DOT. Businesses can also erect up to two directional signs pointing the way for motorists.
Several speakers said the explosive popularity of GPS and smartphones makes billboards even less appealing, or necessary.
Alvion Kimball, owner of the Orland House Bed and Breakfast, said he believes more of his business comes from people finding his inn on their smartphones than from his roadside signs.
“I’m very happy with the signs I have,” Kimball said. “I would rather see Maine invest money in better broadband service for the state.”
Maine’s billboard ban was enacted in the late 1970s after a drawn-out political campaign spearheaded by former state lawmaker Marion Fuller Brown, a York Republican. Fuller Brown, who is 93, was unable to attend Tuesday’s hearing but two of her daughters urged the committee to protect a law that, in turn, protects the views that lure tourists.
“Many people have spoken to me time and time again about the dramatic change in the look of New Hampshire compared to Maine and Vermont as they travel our highways and byways,” said Martha Fuller Clark, who is a state lawmaker in New Hampshire but still owns property in Maine. “Clearly, New Hampshire — where there is no billboard ban — is at a distinct disadvantage.”
Max Ashburn, communications director for Scenic America, a nonprofit that fights roadside billboards and other “visual clutter,” said the national trend is toward tightening — not loosening — regulations on outdoor advertising.
“That is because people don’t like billboards and when given a choice they don’t want them in their communities,” Ashburn said. “In this way, Maine is held up around the country as the gold standard for billboard control.”
A work session on the two bills is scheduled for May 5.