Political signs have returned to Kenai Peninsula roadsides, blooming right on schedule between dandelions and orange hawkweed. By the time the fireweed has gone to seed, we'll be tired of them -- if they're still around.
Placing temporary signage is likely the most misunderstood and disobeyed law in Alaska. But there is one simple rule of campaign signs in the State of Alaska and it is this: If a campaign sign can be read from a state roadway, then it is illegal and should be taken down.
“Any sign visible from the travelled way is not allowed," said Heather Fair, the chief of the Right of Way Division of the Alaska Department of Transportation in Juneau. “Federal law has some distances, and that’s where you might see that referenced in our information. There’s some distances roughly 600 or so feet, 650 feet from the edge of the right of way on, but state law goes beyond that.”
State law does go well beyond that to the point of banning signs even if they’re more than an eight of a mile away.
So at this point you’re probably tabulating in your mind the dozens upon dozens of illegally placed signs you’ve already seen and might you be wondering why they are still there if they’re illegal. Well, as DOT spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy points out, it’s complicated.
“First of all, we would have to get permission from a private property owner to remove a sign. We’d have to give 30 days notice. And we also have a Supreme Court ruling that protects political signage as free speech. And that’s pretty important to us," McCarthy said. "So we recognize that there’s common sense here even though technically there’s a law on the books that says that signage that’s within 650 feet of a highway that receives public funding, that those signs are illegal.”
There are exemptions to the state sign law, like businesses advertising and such. But in the 1998 Alaskan-passed voter initiative, billboards were banned overwhelmingly. In fact that law, Fair says, is the one simple rule to remember.
“But really the state law makes it pretty easy. Anything visible from the state road is not allowed," Fair said. "Don’t even bother finding the property line. It’s more of an issue for us on what tier of enforcement it is.”
However, budget woes are basically keeping the DOT from enacting that kind of full enforcement.
McCarthy says the DOT’s Southcentral Region will be addressing the problem due to a flood of complaints this year, but they will not be straying too far from the roadway.
“What we’re going to be doing first, is our Right of Way staff will be tagging signs that are in the right of way, in the clear zone, or interfering with sight distance," she said.
Fines for sign scofflaws range from $50 to $5,000, and it costs a minimum of $50 to get a sign back from the DOT yard south of Soldotna.
If you have a favorite spot blighted by a campaign sign you suspect that may be illegally placed, meaning you can make it out from a state road, take a picture with your phone and share it to KDLL’s Facebook page with the nearest cross streets and we’ll make sure the DOT’s Right of Way Division sees it.
In the interest of full disclosure, we should add that at times KDLL’s sandwich boards may have in the past violated the sign rules outlined in this story.