Business

More Billboards Just Around The Corner On Oregon Highways

OPB | Sept. 23, 2007 8:56 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:19 a.m. | Portland, OR

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By Ethan Lindsey

Clackamas County commissioners say they plan to approve about 80 Measure 37 claims by homeowners who want to build on their land.

The county says it's moving ahead because the claims will remain legal even if voters adjust some of Measure 37's rules — by approving Measure 49 in November. But many land owners who have wanted to take advantage of Measure 37 for some specific purposes, may lose out.

Ethan Lindsey reports on how the law may change the number of billboards on state roads.


Oregon has long been proud of its state highways. Not just that there are more than 8000 miles of them.

No, the pride many feel comes from the fact that the state has some of the least advertised roads in the country.

There are only four states that have fewer billboards - and that's because they ban them altogether.

Amy Joyce is the program coordinator for the Department of Transportation's outdoor advertising sign program. She manages the billboards.

Amy Joyce: “Of those states that allow billboards at all, Oregon has had some of the tightest restrictions in the nation.”

Oregon's pristine highways came about in the 1960s, after First Lady Lady Byrd Johnson helped push for the federal Highway Beautification Act. The law gives more money to states who kept their roads clean and preserved.

As a state, Oregon went even farther. It issued a limited number of legal billboard permits. The state capped that number at 2500, and hasn't increased it since. The only way to get a billboard, really, was to buy someone else's.

Amy Joyce: “I think the cap and replace system is unique to Oregon.”

And says Amy Joyce,  things stayed that way for more than 30 years. Until a Medford sign company decided to challenge the law last year.

Ross Day is the legal director for the state's most vocal property rights group, Oregonians in Action. He says that legal challenge - plus  Measure 37 - started to eat away at what he calls Oregon's unconstitutional restrictions on billboards.

Ross Day: “This idea of beautification and preserving the aesthetics, runs right up against the first amendment.”

The state Supreme Court agreed with the free speech rights of the Medford sign company. Not particularly surprising  considering Oregon has quite possibly the broadest free speech laws in the country.

So by striking down the law, the court allowed land owners to build signs, in an almost unrestricted way. That's how ODOT's Amy Joyce describes it.

Amy Joyce: “I wouldn't call it an explosion, but there have certainly been a number of new signs that have gone up.”

About 100 new billboards, by some estimates.

On this stretch of Highway 26, that's very apparent. Before the court ruling, roadside ads were almost exclusively restricted to the store that was right there in front of you. A restaurant owner could only advertise out in front of the restaurant.

Now, as you drive through Sandy you see a bank ad with no bank. A Safeway ad with no grocery store. And the Golden Arches, with no Big Macs in sight.

But the recent battlefront for billboards extended beyond the supreme court.

Ross Day says when his group put Measure 37 in front of voters in 2004, they didn't even think about how it would affect billboards. But as the law is now being interpreted, it allows long-time land owners to build billboards, if they were allowed to build them when they bought the property - meaning if they bought it before 1971.

Ross Day: “The billboards to me represent progress and economic development and activity. For those people who don't like economic development, the no-growthers who just want everything to stay the same, probably not.”

Day concedes the one thing Measure 37 can't do, is get around federal highway laws.

And Joyce says that's why fewer  than 10 people have actually used  Measure 37  to put up new billboards.

Now, though, slow growthers say the worm has turned.

Over the summer, the state legislature passed a new law that reimplemented the state billboard restrictions, but in what they claim is a constitutional way.

And in November, voters will consider an adjustment to Measure 37, which most legal experts believe would mean billboards could no longer be built by longtime landowners without one of those state permits.

But Ross Day with Oregonians in Action says he hasn't thrown in the towel just yet.

Ross Day: “I'm sure if Measure 49 passes, which I hope it doesn't, we'll have that argument somewhere.”

Joyce says the state knows exactly where future fights will take place. The courtroom.

Amy Joyce: “And then I expect a lot of litigation over what the new law means, what the old law meant. And I expect that litigation to go on for years.”

She says that the billboards that were built legally in the past year will be grandfathered in and get to stay.

But she says 100 more billboards in Oregon still amounts to nothing compared with  the number of billboards in most other states.

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