Sterling Highway right-of-way issue not over yet, says DOT

Posted: Tuesday, October 09, 2001

Many signs along the Sterling Highway through downtown Soldotna are closer to being moved or removed, though a meeting not yet scheduled holds out the possibility of postponing the action.

At least 20 businesses between the Soldotna Y and the Kenai River bridge have some sort of encroachment into the state's highway right of way, and the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities wants them cleared. The city of Soldotna is one of the encroachers, since a lamp post at the police department is within the right of way.

After the 1998 statewide voter initiative to ban billboards from the roadside, the DOT began invoking the cancellation clause in contracts for signs in the right of way as projects are begun throughout the state. The Sterling was repaved this summer, and in preparation for that work, the DOT began the cancellation of the leases almost two years ago.

"Banning the eyesores in the wilderness is all well and good," said Don Johnson of Johnson Brother's Fishing Guides, whose sign was one of the first targeted for removal. "But DOT didn't stop there, they had to go through the right of way."

One of his beefs with the DOT is that the right of way as it goes through town is jagged, inconsistent and irregular. At some points, the highway right of way -- the land the state owns on both sides of a highway -- extends as little as 66 feet from the road, at other points, it extends up to 200 feet.

Johnson said he has had six to eight "move it or lose it" ultimatums from the state in the past couple of years, many of them this summer. At times the DOT has threatened to remove the signs itself, other times, it has threatened legal action, he said.

Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, said the DOT had even looked for contractors to remove signs.

"Though I haven't heard of them moving ahead with that," Lancaster said.

Currently, the issue with Johnson is being reviewed by the state Attorney General's office, said Murph O'Brien, spokesperson for DOT in Anchorage.

"We gave Mr. Johnson a Sept. 13 deadline, and that's past, so the next step was to have the file reviewed by the attorney general," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said the DOT does have the authority to remove signs on its own, but doubts that would ever happen.

Johnson has said that, at the very least, the DOT should pay the business owners for moving the signs. O'Brien doesn't think that's likely.

"We have to fall back on what the leases say, and there are no provisions to make payments," O'Brien said.

O'Brien said the DOT is motivated to have the right of way cleared not only to comply with the state's sign code, but to comply with federal regulations.

"The signs are not appropriate according to those regulations. The only appropriate ones are the traffic signs," he said.

He said federal highway funds could be threatened if the state does not comply.

"That's the hammer they hold over our heads for any number of things," he said. "To be eligible for funding, we have to be in compliance."

Johnson, who has done extensive research into state and federal code, said the federal government has an exemption for urban signs that the state is not recognizing.

"Why not iron the whole mess out and make a 50-foot right of way and solve the whole problem?" Johnson asked. "If they pulled the right of way back to 50 feet, 90 percent of the problems would go away."

O'Brien said that, too, is unlikely.

"The problem is that some time in the future, we may have to come back and acquire the right of way for future development," he said.

O'Brien said the DOT has been in contact with Lancaster and the city of Soldotna and at the city's request a meeting with business owners is being planned, though no date has been set.

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