The Sterling Highway through downtown Soldotna has been praised and panned over the years.
It's been held up as a shining example of the new tourist-based economy, booming and thriving, bringing in millions of dollars in sales tax revenue.
It's also been held up as a tarnished example of urban blight with signs high and low hawking its owner's wares and services.
The "Sterling Mile," as it winds through downtown Soldotna, is undergoing an extensive facelift this summer, smoothing the way for tourists and residents alike. But part of the improvement means rough roads for business owners along the city's main business drag.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is in the process of revoking all leases for signs in the highway's right of way, causing business owners and city officials to scramble for solutions.
"A number of signs are not in compliance, and the state sent a letter to some of them," said Soldotna Mayor David Carey. "The state came down pretty heavy, saying they'll remove them at the owner's expense."
That letter prompted some residents to appeal to the Soldotna City Council last week for help in mitigating the sign enforcement.
Carey said City Manager Tom Boedeker has convinced DOT not to remove anybody's signs at this point, until a thorough survey can be made and a community meeting held. The survey is set to get under way this week, though no date for a meeting has been set.
Steve Anderson, owner of Soldotna Bed and Breakfast Lodge, said DOT is trying to divide and conquer businesses on the highway by selectively enforcing the law.
"If they do it, they should contact everybody at the same time," he told the council.
He said the map he got from DOT is incomplete, not showing all the encroaching signs. He added the state could not produce a complete list of encroachments.
David Eberle, regional director for DOT in Anchorage, said Monday there is not a complete list of all encroachments, yet. He said his right-of-way department is starting with those businesses that were issued permits to put signs up in the right of way and will continue with those encroaching illegally.
"The ones that did have permits, we exercised the 90-day cancellation clause last fall," Eberle said. "We asked them to remove their encroachments and a number of people have done so."
After voters approved a controversial billboard initiative in 1998, Eberle said DOT asked the state Attorney General's office to do a review of its policy regarding sign permits and right-of-way encroachments. He said DOT is easing into enforcing them, by starting with places undergoing highway improvements, such as the Soldotna Urban Project. He said the review will continue throughout the state.
Don Johnson, of Johnson Brothers Outfitters, said Wednes-day state officials knew the permits they allowed were illegal and are now trying to enact a cancellation clause in an illegal contract.
"We'll probably have to remove our signs eventually, but they should pay for it and work with the owners," Johnson said.
He described the state's actions as "pulling the rug out" from under business owners and "stabbing them in the back."
He said Monday that his company's sign cost $10,000 and will probably cost several thousand more to relocate.
Anderson complained that another inequity in the matter is the manner in which the right of way goes through town. While the highway itself has two bends in it, the right of way has scores, jogging left and right in what Eberle admitted was "a mena-gerie."
Eberle said the right of way varies in width from 66 feet to 100, 150 and 200.
"It's pretty irregular to say the least," he said.
The differences, sometimes within the same block, could mean one business can have a sign next to the sidewalk, while its neighbor must be dozens of yards further back.
"The only way to make it consistent is to establish new lines and go out and acquire new land or relinquish land," Eberle said. "But we certainly don't want to relinquish land we might need."
Former mayor of Soldotna, Rep. Ken Lancaster, said people who are new to the state often find jagged right of ways unusual.
The varied widths owe their nature to the boundaries of the original homesteads in town, subsequent subdivisions, the land the DOT was granted for the highway and later acquisitions.
Carey said he is hoping to talk the state into applying a unified standard to businesses along the highway.
"They're talking about the letter of the law, and we're talking about the spirit of the law," the mayor said. "We want to meet with DOT and get a more common sense solution.
"I think we all want the city to look very nice," he added. "We want people to drive through and say positive things, but we want everybody treated equally."
Lancaster said he and council member Jane Stein went door-to-door more than a year ago, telling business owners a change was coming.
"We had absolutely zero comments. There was no particular interest a year or so in advance of the project," Lancaster said. "They were more concerned with traffic being blocked from their businesses than they were over signs. That's obviously changed now."
Johnson said he never got a visit from Lancaster and Stein.
Lancaster said it's not a bad thing to get signs off the side of the road.
"If a sign is in the right of way and a motorist or bicyclist hits it, they'll sue the state," he said. "That's the primary driver of this, so we're not liable."
The city of Soldotna may be affected by the crackdown. It seems some trees and all of Pioneer Gardens is inside the right of way and has lost its permit, though Eberle said landscaping is generally not a problem.
Johnson said there could be as many as 30 or 40 other businesses involved, some encroaching just a few inches. The final effect of DOT's crackdown will not be known until a final survey is done and businesses and the city can negotiate with the state.
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