AUGUSTA — “Don’t take our signs. Don’t move our signs,” seemed to be the message to lawmakers on the Transportation Committee on Tuesday.

The comments came during a public hearing on a bill that would remove 68 signs and move 13 others that point to towns, colleges, parks, ski areas and other recreational or cultural attractions along the interstate highway system.

The legislation, LD 1831, is the result of a nearly yearlong effort by the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Department of Transportation to align state policy with federal law when it comes to directional and traffic signs.

Peter Mills, executive director of the Maine Turnpike Authority, said the effort was a direct result of a request from the committee, which was regularly hearing requests for signs that did not comply with national guidelines. Those guidelines are outlined by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and codified in the Federal Highway Administration’s uniform traffic controls manual, officials said.

Under the proposal, 13 signs, including ones for the Bethel Recreational Area and the University of Maine at Farmington, may be relocated to more appropriate exits.

Signs for commercial entities and venues, such as the Lewiston Sports Complex and Lost Valley ski area, may be removed but would qualify for separate “logo” signs, according to MTA’s list.

Bruce Van Note, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Transportation, said that when he has been approached about sign installations, he has often said the only real way to get a sign is to appeal to the Legislature. Van Note said many entities over the years have done just that and have been successful, which has left the state with an eclectic and inconsistent policy that’s difficult to understand or defend.

Mills said Tuesday that the MTA and MDOT recognize that Maine is unique and that’s part of why they modified national standards, including expanding one standard that said an entity had to be within 5 miles of the highway by increasing that limit to within 100 miles of the highway. Mills said that change was meant to recognize Maine’s rural nature.

Mills said several issues raised Tuesday by opponents were things that could be resolved in the existing language of the bill. He said amendments to the bill, including one being proposed that would grandfather existing signs, may resolve most of the concerns aired during the three-hour hearing.

The proposed rules break highway signs into two categories. One is interchange guide signs that alert drivers to areas of local, regional or statewide interest, including towns and cities within 5 miles of a highway exit, or those that have a major road leading to another population center of 10,000 or more or a town or area that is considered a major destination that is “directly connected to the exit if its inclusion would benefit travelers.”

The second category, supplemental guide signs, are those that provide directional guidance to travelers and are not already identified on an interchange sign.

The bill would disqualify locations such as Oxford Hills and Rumford-Andover, which have signs on Interstate 95 near the Gray-New Gloucester and Auburn exits, because they are too far from the interstate and do not meet the requirement of “major recreational area” under the proposed rules.

Requirements include having a public beach or lake access with parking for at least 100 vehicles and restrooms, or generating significant tax revenue and offering “recreational opportunities of sufficient traffic significance,” according to the proposed bill.

Those requirements could mean the removal of other signs, including those pointing to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, the Maine College of Art in Portland and Roosevelt Campobello Park near Lubec.

In other cases, an attraction is deemed not big enough to merit a sign. Black Mountain Ski Area in Rumford, for example, would see its sign on I-95 in Auburn removed because it does not have the required 1,000-foot vertical drop or 40 maintained trails.

Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine, the ski industry’s trade association, asked the committee Tuesday to change that requirement so that mountain size and trail count are not the only criteria for a ski area sign.

Sweetser said a better way to determine whether a ski area warranted a highway sign was whether it had a chairlift. That would mean smaller resorts such as Lost Valley in Auburn and Black Mountain in Rumford would retain their highway signs.

He said ski resorts were massive economic engines for rural Maine and not only drew one-time visitors but those who come again and again as well as those who invest in vacation properties, bolstering further local economies and tax bases.

But other tourism business owners, including the owner of Funtown Splashtown in Saco, said it was unfair that they paid for their highway sign while ski areas such as Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley and Saddleback in Rangeley got free signs. 

Mills said the difference was between a resort that included hundreds of businesses compared to a sign that directed travelers to a specific business. 

Rep. Sheryl Briggs, D-Mexico, said the bill addresses a problem that needs to be fixed, but it had the potential to hurt business in the River Valley.

Briggs said the legislation would remove signs that she believes help the region’s tourism economy. She said the recreation in her area was not considered “major” by the new standard. “On the contrary, these are areas that help keep Western Maine’s economy alive,” she said. “The rules proposed by this bill cause more harm than good.”

Briggs also read a letter from the Rumford and Mexico town manager, John Madigan.

“I find it hard to believe that the people responsible for these recommendations can be so insensitive to the needs of rural Maine,” Madigan wrote. “If we don’t comply with some bureaucrats’ arbitrary rules for signage, then the state Legislature needs to instruct the bureaucracy to rewrite the rules to meet the needs of the people of rural Maine. There is a lot more to Maine than Portland, L-A and Bangor.”

Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, and Tom Winsor, R-Norway, also spoke against the bill. Peterson said his town and region were in a critical period of economic transition and the loss of highway signs would be “devastating to us helping get the word out about the River Valley.”

Mills said the MTA and MDOT had “an enormous amount of time and energy that went into creating this little five-page bill that is an effort to establish policy.”

He said the turnpike and I-95 should not be places to indulge “in promotion for its own sake or for advertising,” Mills said. “It’s there for traffic. Those signs are there to guide, not to confuse people from away. People who need guidance about how to find the University of Maine, for example, up in Orono.”

Others speaking against the measure included nonprofit educational institutions such as Kaplan University and Hebron Academy, which are among those who could see their signs removed if the legislation passes. 

Also speaking against the bill were city officials and mayors who say the signs pointing the way to their towns were critical to directing traffic to attractions, services and, in the case of Hallowell, even state government offices.

John King, head of school for Hebron Academy, urged the committee to at least grandfather signs now in place. He said Hebron, only four years ago, was successful in convincing the Legislature to allow a highway sign directing motorists to the academy. King said the school is not only an educational resource to the state but also a cultural and historic place that was established more than 200 years ago, before Maine became a state.

Susan Mitchell, the external affairs coordinator for Maine Maritime Academy, said many of the students who go to her school visit it for the first time when they are moving in as freshmen. She said even the 70 percent of students from Maine who attend the academy do not know where it is until they make that visit. She said the academy’s signs truly do serve the purpose of providing direction to visitors and students and are not simply another way to advertise the school.

Lawmakers from around the state voiced their opposition to the bill, including state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting. He said the signs pointing to Washington County’s major attractions, including the international Roosevelt Campobello Park and Quoddy Head State Park, were important to the county’s tourism economy.

“As this committee is well-aware, Maine receives more than $5 billion annually from tourism,” Burns said. “From this industry, which supports nearly 90,000 jobs, we receive $370 million in tax revenues. These are all critical components to Maine, and Washington County, especially.” He said passing the bill as is “could do serious and irreparable harm” to the state’s economy, which continues to struggle with its recovery.

Some took a neutral position on the bill, including Vaughn Stinson, executive director of the Maine Tourism Council. Stinson said how people find their way while traveling on pleasure was changing rapidly with technology, and state policy should make an attempt to acknowledge that. 

Stinson said he was not advocating to take down signs immediately but to do so in a gradual manner that reflected the traveling public’s steady transition to technological means such as GPS devices and online searches for travel information.

He said visitors to Maine are always stunned by the state’s natural beauty, its cleanliness and the fact that the state is only one of four nationwide that prohibits billboards on its highways. He said removing more signs may have a benefit some are overlooking.  

State Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, said he wanted to know whether there was any information that showed putting up a sign actually helped the economy.

Van Note said he didn’t know of any studies that showed a direct correlation between signs and economic impact.

He also said that the policy MTA and MDOT came up with is “a fair and objective system.” 

“It’s not easy, but we are doing our best,” Van Note said. “No one here is trying to, in any way, go after the obvious pride and passion that relates to any signs.”

Mills and Van Note said following the hearing that they recognize the effort to unify and streamline highway sign policy in Maine would be a difficult and perhaps uphill battle in the Legislature, where almost every lawmaker has a vested interest in promoting the businesses and attractions in their communities.

The committee will next consider amendments as it works on the bill Wednesday, starting at 1:30 p.m.

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