State targets 20 Soldotna business signs for removal

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

KENAI (AP) -- Twenty commercial signs encroaching in the state right-of-way on a busy Soldotna thoroughfare have been targeted for removal and business owners are expressing their displeasure to the Department of Transportation.

At least 20 businesses on the Sterling Highway east of the Kenai River Bridge have some sort of encroachment and the department wants them cleared.

After a 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 repair projects began.

The Sterling Highway was repaved over the summer. In preparation for that work, the DOT began canceling sign 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 through Soldotna is 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. The department has threatened to remove the signs itself and has threatened legal action, he said.

The issue with Johnson is being reviewed by the Department of Law, said Murph O'Brien, DOT spokesman 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 has the authority to remove signs but he doubts that would ever happen.

Johnson has said that the DOT should pay business owners for moving signs. O'Brien said that is not 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. 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.

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