AUGUSTA — A Belgrade lawmaker is reintroducing legislation that mobilized opposition from the tourism industry and scenic beauty advocates two years ago. The bill would allow businesses more leeway to place roadside signs on their property to entice drivers to stop at their establishments.
Republican Rep. Dennis Keschl says his bill, LD 483, is an attempt to offer small businesses in rural areas an advantage their counterparts in Maine’s cities enjoy: the ability to place on their property attention-grabbing signs that offer valuable advertising. Most of Maine’s rural towns abide by the state’s restrictions on roadside signs for businesses, he said, while many of the state’s larger towns and cities have more permissive rules on the books locally.
“It’s a small business bill,” Keschl said. “The only reason for this is to provide for economic growth in rural areas so small businesses can have a better opportunity to compete.”
But the bill is already mobilizing some of the same advocates who opposed similar legislation from Keschl two years ago. Emily Fuller Hawkins of Deer Isle, who testified against the 2011 legislation, said this year’s bill is the first step toward reversing Maine’s decades-old ban on highway billboards.
“The national billboard companies are looking for a way to open the door to undermining everything,” she said. “It completely reverses the current policy of the state of Maine. That’s their way to have a door opener to come into Maine and then say, ‘OK, you’ve reversed your policy about how you think about signage.’”
While serving the Legislature in the 1960s and 1970s, Hawkins’ mother, Marion Fuller Brown, sponsored Maine’s law that bans off-premises billboards from state highways. Brown, who died in 2011, was a founder of the national organization Scenic America. Maine is one of four states that don’t allow roadside billboards, according to the organization.
Keschl said his bill has nothing to do with billboards. “There’s strong sentiment in the state, and rightfully so, against billboards,” he said. “I think they’re intrusive in terms of the aesthetic on highways.”
The legislation, instead, targets Maine’s rules for so-called “on-premises” signs, which are located on businesses’ property.
It would allow businesses’ freestanding signs to reach a height of 35 feet, up from the current 25-foot height restriction; it would let businesses place advertising signs farther away from their principal building — 1,500 feet, up from the current 1,000 feet; and it would allow businesses to place three signs on their property, up from the current two, if they’re located more than 1,000 feet from a roadway.
In addition, the legislation would allow changeable signs — digital signs with messages that change periodically — to be visible from the state’s interstate highways, which is currently prohibited. The law would allow those signs to change their message once a minute, up from the current rule of once every 20 minutes.
If the bill passes, Keschl said, towns and cities wouldn’t have to use the same rules. They could pass ordinances that are more or less permissive, he said.
“I just think it’s unfair that people in the rural communities in this state are at a disadvantage when it comes to putting advertising signs out on your business property,” Keschl said.
But any move that weakens Maine’s rules against roadside signs is a step toward visually polluted roadsides, said Hawkins.
“One of the greatest assets the state of Maine has, when [visitors] come into the state of Maine, they don’t see any billboards from the interstates,” she said. “That is so impressive.”
Plus, Hawkins said, Maine businesses already have an alternative for advertising on state highways through the state’s Official Business Directional Sign program, run by the Maine Department of Transportation.
A transportation department official couldn’t be reached for comment on Keschl’s bill Monday, though the agency didn’t take a position on his bill in 2011.
Keschl’s bill two years ago attracted the support of a handful of Maine sign manufacturers and a representative of the International Sign Association, who touted the benefits of advertising using roadside signs.
Opponents included representatives from the Maine Restaurant Association, the Maine Tourism Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association, who said they worried about how more roadside signs would affect the state’s natural beauty, which attracts tourists to Maine.
The Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which will hold a hearing on the bill March 8, killed the bill unanimously in 2011.