N.H. road-sign law raises U.S. highway agency’s ire

The state of New Hampshire might be on a collision course with the Federal Highway Administration — one that might cost it $120 million to $150 million in annual federal highway construction aid.

The why of it might be due to a veteran Republican state legislator, Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

Several years ago, Kurk introduced legislation that would allow small businesses located along state highways to erect a sign advertising it in the adjacent state-owned right-of-way.

Kurk said the purpose of the bill was “to help local small businesses. It would provide for only one sign per business, and it would be adjacent to the business. The business also would have to have a driveway that goes into the highway. Additionally, the bill would not exempt the signs from existing state and local community regulations.”

Kurk said he introduced the bill at the request of local businesses.

The size and width of a highway’s right-of-way can and does vary greatly, depending on the highway’s class and setting. If the highway merges into a city’s street grid, such as Route 28 in Manchester, then the right-of-way can be tiny. The state Department of Transportation has a crew of five that enforces regulations and investigates possible violations of existing right-of-way rules. They also usually respond to complaints.

The bill passed with considerable bipartisan support and was signed into law. However, the state DOT has been slow in developing the rules needed to implement the provisions of the statute, until this year. A proposed rule that covered the issue of signs along highways and not just the right-of-way issue, 2003-87 Tra 601, has been drafted. At both the bill’s original hearing and during the rules-making process, the Federal Highway Administration warned of consequences if the bill is implemented.

“The federal government has very strict rules about signs on federal highways and those that receive federal funding,” said Kathleen O. Laffey, division administrator for the agency in New Hampshire. “The rules are very clear. If the state moves to implement the rules, then the Federal Highway Administration may make the decision to withhold some or all of the federal monies allocated to New Hampshire. This would include federal aid for state highways and roads as well as monies for interstate highway construction. It would be up to the officials in Washington in order to determine how much money might be denied to New Hampshire if the state carries out the law.”

In an Oct. 15 letter to state Transportation Commissioner Carol A. Murray, Laffey wrote:

“… the State’s law and the proposed regulation would violate longstanding federal laws É FHWA is not planning to change its interpretation of these laws nor are we proposing legislative change in the transportation reauthorization bill.”

Citing concerns that signs would “compromise the safety of the motoring public,” Laffey added: “The actions proposed by the state would be a clear violation of state laws and would have significant national implications for Federal-aid highway programs. Should the State proceed, the FHWA would be compelled to notify the State of the withholding of Federal fundsÉit would be regrettable for New Hampshire to suffer the delay of much needed transportation dollars…”

However the furor over the right-of-way issue is not the only reason opposition has emerged to the proposed rules.

The outdoor billboard industry in New Hampshire objects to other aspects of the proposed rules.

“Some of the major problems with these rules include prohibiting moveable and tri-vision signs, which are legal in 39 states, and the federal government has no objection to such signs as well as overly restrictive rules concerning the clearing of vegetation that interferes with the public’s view of outdoor signs,” said lobbyist Dick Bouley, who represents The Anagnost Companies and Viacom Outdoors.

An Oct. 14 letter from an official of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, listed other objections to the proposal, including that the rules would call for:

– Advertising copy and subject matter of signs to be included in permits.

– Amount of rental compensation to landowner to be included in the application for sign permit.

– A sign to be considered abandoned after 90 days. Currently, a sign is considered abandoned if it is not used for a year.

The objections have sent DOT officials back to tune up their proposal, although it’s not clear when the state DOT will present the revised rules to the joint committee.

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