Topic: Environment

Challenge of the times: Vermont’s billboard regulations in the age of digital advertising — Rutland Herald Article

Posted on April 30, 2012 by - Environment, Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald, Vermont History

Billboards were common throughout Vermont before the 1968 law that prohibited new billboards and gave owners of existing billboards five years to take them down. This billboard in Montpelier was removed on Oct. 21, 1975, as part of an enforcement action. Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Challenge of the times: Vermont’s billboard regulations in the age of digital advertising

Nathaniel Gibson

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a two-part series examining the history of outdoor advertising regulations in Vermont and how they are applied today.

As outdoor advertising has become increasingly prevalent across the United States, Vermont’s ban on billboards has been instrumental in preserving the scenic beauty of the state. Crafted by the Senate Natural Resources Committee in 1968, the law’s aim was to balance preservation of the state’s landscape with the need for informational signs to help the influx of out-of-state visitors. The law established the Travel Information Council to regulate off-premise signs and maintain informational facilities and displays for tourists.

Today, the law’s original goals remain the same. “We need to provide information to the traveler, but do not want to compromise our natural scenery,” says John Kessler, chair of the Travel Information Council. “Tourism is the number one industry in the state. And the lack of advertising is one of the most commonly reported things that visitors appreciate about Vermont.”

Businesses may display an on-premise sign up to 150 square feet, provided that it is not primarily aligned towards a limited access road. Off-premise signs — the official name for billboards — are not allowed, unless TIC grants an exemption. Exemptions are typically granted for reasons of public safety and convenience.

For example, black and white official business directional signs (OBDS) providing distances and directions to local business are allowed. Businesses willing to cover the costs of installation may apply to the Agency of Transportation for these signs.

Also exempted are approach signs, which are placed on the same road as a business and indicates its distance. Approach signs are only approved if there are immediate safety considerations, such as a sharp curve or hill near the business. Additionally, on limited access highways certain signs are required by federal regulations. A complete list of exempt signs can be found in 10 V.S.A. § 494.

Enforcement of the ban begins on a local level. The district transportation office responds to violations by notifying offenders that they need to remove the offending signs. Such offenses are infrequent and typically due to ignorance of the law.

Once notified, most businesses and individuals readily remove the sign in question. Those who want to keep the sign in place can come before TIC to state their case for an exemption or work out a compromise, such as installing an official business directional sign or an approach sign.

Kessler reports that, fortunately, regulation and enforcement do not demand a disproportionate amount of TIC’s time when it meets every other month.Aside from considering exemptions to the off-premise sign ban, the TIC also oversees certain interstate signs to make sure that they meet federal regulations.

While the goals of the law remain the same, times have changed. Advances in sign technology have presented challenges to the law. As flashing displays came into the use during the 1970s, TIC had to decide how to best regulate them.

In 1977, the Travel Information Council, working with the attorney general, established the definition for flashing displays by settling on 15 minutes as the fastest acceptable rate of change. A key factor in that determination was that a traveler’s pace of movement — depending on whether the traveler is on foot or in a vehicle — affects the number of impressions that the traveler sees in a given amount of time. Exempted from this new regulation were certain flashing displays with historical significance, such as barber polls and theater marquees, or others related to public convenience, such as time and temperature signs on banks.

Once defined and regulated, flashing displays have not posed much of an issue for TIC. As with static signs, there have been a few violations. Owners of signs in question are usually happy to remedy the situation. For example, a number of drugstores in Rutland once had flashing displays with messages that were rotating faster than once every 15 minutes — but once notified and made aware of the law, the owners agreed to simply reprogram the displays.

However, recently an electronic business sign at a truck dealership in Jericho has been generating controversy. The owner, Randy H. Clark, has been notified that his sign violates the billboard law. So far Clark has refused to acquiesce, on the grounds that the sign displays messages about charitable endeavors, community events, fund-raisers and birthdays. Clark points out that anyone within the community may contact him about posting such an event, and the service is provided free of charge.

Those who avail themselves of Clark’s display are urged to donate to “Clark’s Community Fund.” According to Clark, all donations go to charitable causes. However, John LaBarge, the AOT’s representative on TIC, is concerned that Clark is charging people to display messages much like the owner of a billboard displays advertisements for a business in return for a fee.

In response to the situation in Jericho, the House Transportation Committee has asked TIC to review and update the current regulations governing flashing, intermittent signs. TIC submitted its report on current exemptions on Jan. 15 in which it recommended a number of minor changes primarily aimed at increasing the clarity and cohesiveness of the law’s language. TIC also recommended that “sandwich boards and other similarly temporary advertising signs may be erected if they are regulated by municipal ordinances.”

TIC must adopt the updated rules for flashing, intermittent or moving lights by July 1. Kessler, well aware of the significance of this process, observes, “I think the law governing off-premise advertising strikes close to the heart of what Vermonters care about.”

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He may be contacted at

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
April 29, 2012

Yes, we have no billboards – Rutland Herald Article

Posted on March 13, 2012 by - Environment, Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Billboards were commonly seen in Vermont before the 1968 law that prohibited new billboards and gave owners of existing billboards five years to take them down. The law's passage was a very significant milestone in the evolution of Vermont’s environmental legislation. Source: Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Yes, we have no billboards

Nathaniel Gibson

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series examining the history of outdoor advertising regulations in Vermont and how they are applied today.

Vermonters highly value their farm and forested landscape, and many organizations are working to conserve it for future generations. Such efforts have a long history in the state. Vermont’s billboard ban – one of the state’s signature environmental accomplishments – was made law in 1968. But the story goes back at least to the 1930s.

It’s difficult to imagine the pastoral Vermont landscape dotted with billboards. Cross over the state border, though, and the reality of off-premise advertising signs becomes immediately apparent. Only three other states – Maine, Alaska and Hawaii – have similar measures in place.

Vermont was the first state to ban billboards. The process began in the 1930s as local citizens, committees and garden groups concerned with preserving the natural beauty and character of the landscape started to confront the increasingly powerful national billboard lobby.

As early as 1929, Vermont-born writer Vrest Orton had described national advertisers as having “an urge to plaster all the roads retaining the least vestige of adjacent beauty, with massive, gaudy and hideous sign-boards, so that it might truly be said, ‘Behind the signboard lies Vermont.’ All these things are basically un-Vermonterish.”

In 1937, seven billboards were put up in Springfield. A citizen’s committee promptly contacted the advertisers and argued that the signs were detrimental to local business. Shortly after this event, opponents of outdoor advertising formed the Vermont Association for Billboard Restriction. The group’s purpose was to lobby the state Legislature for further billboard restrictions and help coordinate the activities of local groups.

That first citizens’ committee that had formed in Springfield proved to be one of VABR’s most effective groups. It created an unfriendly climate toward national advertisers by using a combination of strongly worded letters, handbills, boycotts and petitions. The goal was to keep both local and national business from renting space from billboard owners and force them to move elsewhere.

The committee’s logic proved sound. Within 18 months all of the billboards in Springfield had been removed, a development that underscored the clout of VABR and emboldened similar groups in other areas.

The growing movement against outdoor advertising received another boost in 1943 when the Vermont Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that property owners did not have any intrinsic rights to advertise on billboards adjacent to public roads. This ruling gave the state government and municipalities the authority to ban billboards. Most towns were quite happy to keep billboards off their roadsides.

During the following decade the anti-billboard momentum continued to develop. In 1957, the state Legislature passed a law that eliminated billboards and other advertisements along limited-access roads.

The billboard debate heated up in 1960 as local merchants came to depend on billboards to lure motorists off highways and interstates and into their stores. But an attempt in 1960 to repeal the 1957 ban on billboards along limited-access roads was unsuccessful. The issue continued to be significant throughout the 1960s, especially at the local level.

In 1967, freshman Republican Rep. Ted Riehle of South Burlington introduced a bill to eliminate billboards from interstates and restrict advertising on other byways to small, licensed signs with directions to local businesses or other attractions and on-premise signage.

“The state was getting fairly well-covered with large billboards along major roads, and this initiative was seen as a way to make Vermont distinctive and unique from other states which had lots of billboards, while preserving Vermont’s own natural beauty,” says Tom Slayton, editor emeritus of Vermont Life Magazine.

Billboards in Bridgewater in 1960. All billboards have been banned in Vermont since 1968. Source: Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Despite a pitched legislative fight, much time and money spent by the national outdoor advertising lobby and resistance from property-rights advocates, Riehle – with the support of Democrat Gov. Phil Hoff, environmentally-minded constituents and the press – was able to get the bill passed in 1968. The law prohibited new billboards and gave owners of existing billboards five years to take them down. Even though Hoff came out in favor of the bill, Democrats in the Legislature did not share his enthusiasm for environmental protection laws and offered no support.

The law’s passage has proven to be a very significant milestone – not just in the regulation of roadside advertising but also in the evolution of Vermont’s environmental legislation. “By limiting outdoor advertising, it was the first law of its type in that it attempted to regulate business for the benefit of the landscape and the traveling public,” observes Slayton.

The debate surrounding the billboards law served as a preview of coming struggles over the environment as the promotion of tourism, economic growth and development have continued to intrude upon the state’s landscape. Even though the issue was originally cast as one of property rights and beautification, it marked the beginning of Vermont’s environmental laws such as Act 250 and the environmental movement in the state. Efforts to conserve the Vermont landscape for future generations have persisted over the intervening decades. The Vermont Working Landscape Partnership Program, a broad-based partnership, continues this work today.

Regulations governing outdoor advertising have continued to evolve since the 1960s. Developments in transportation and other technologies have raised new questions about the scope and jurisdiction of the law. Part two of this series will explore some of these topics.

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted via

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
March 11, 2012

Bright days ahead: The sun rises on another solar farm and more jobs in Vermont – Rutland Herald Article

Posted on August 7, 2011 by - Environment, Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Bright days ahead: The sun rises on another solar farm and more jobs in Vermont

AllSun Tracker panels capture rays at the South Burlington farm. The panels are equipped with wireless and GPS technology that allows them to track the sun's path and generate over 40% more energy.

Nathaniel Gibson

Renewable energy sources are proliferating across Vermont, including wind, hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal projects. Last month, the state’s largest solar farm to date was brought online in South Burlington during a ceremony intended to showcase the array’s technological innovations, the jobs created by such projects and the future of clean energy in Vermont.

The 2.2-megawatt array features 382 5.5-kilowatt panels equipped with GPS and wireless technology so they can orient to the sun’s path. By tracking the sun, the panels can produce over 40 percent more energy compared to traditional fixed-panel solar arrays. This array, the first in North America to use such a configuration, will produce an estimated 2.91 million kilowatts of power annually.

The panels are designed to withstand Vermont weather. After sundown, each panel returns to a horizontal resting position for the night. If snow falls overnight, most will be dumped when the panels resume operation in the morning and tilt to the sun – and the rest will melt as the panels heat up. Internal wind sensors signal the panels to go into their horizontal resting positions during windy conditions to protect them from wind damage.

The panels, AllSun Trackers, are manufactured locally by AllEarth Renewables, Inc., of Williston. Founded in 2005, the company initially focused on manufacturing small-scale wind turbines, but decided a few years later to shift its focus to solar trackers.
Speakers at the July 27 commissioning event included Gov. Peter Shumlin, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, Speaker of the House Shap Smith and David Blittersdorf, CEO and founder of AllEarth Renewables.

“This project not only produces renewable energy from the sun; it creates a lot of local jobs,” said Blittersdorf. “We’ve innovated and refined our AllSun Tracker so it can be affordably used to power homes or businesses – and at the same time make up a utility-sized farm like this project in South Burlington.”

The land used for the project is owned by two local developers, Joe Larkin and Patrick Michael, who submitted an application to the Vermont Standard Offer Program. The program assists renewable energy producers by guaranteeing long-term contracts and setting rates that allow them to recoup their initial investment and operating costs. The power generated by the South Burlington farm is being sold back to the Vermont Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program, an initiative managed by the Vermont Electric Power Producers that is designed to encourage the growth of renewable energy in the state by setting goals for renewable energy production. By 2017, the SPEED program aims to generate 20 percent of the state’s energy needs from renewable energy.

After their application was approved, Larkin and Michael began working with AllEarth Renewables, who partnered with many local companies to assist with the installation process. Grennon’s Solderworks of Bristol performed the soldering work for the trackers’ electronics, cable parts were supplied by Foxfire Energy of Chittenden, and metalwork was done by NSA Industries of Lyndonville and North East Precision of St. Johnsbury. Two Williston-based contractors, J.A. Morrissey and Engineers Construction, Inc., provided manpower and expertise for the on-site groundwork as well as the actual mounting and installation of the panels.

Expansion of solar energy sources in the state means an increase in clean energy jobs. “One of the things that’s really great about this solar farm and the work of AllEarth Renewables is the number of jobs that go into such a venture,” says Andrew Savage, the company’s director of communications and public affairs. “It’s exciting for all of us to see clean energy manufacturing and jobs growing within the state.” The company employs 26 full-time staff and 5 seasonal staff and has manufactured and installed over 800 solar tracker systems.

Jeanne Morrissey, president of J.A. Morrissey, spoke emotionally of the significance of such local, collaborative efforts for working class families in this era of economic recession: “To have to have conversations over whether we are going to heat the house or going to feed our kids is a really hard conversation … Jobs mean the ability to stay in a home and raise a family.”

Smaller versions of the AllSun Tracker panels are effective in residential settings. A single 4.1-kilowatt tracker produces about 490 kilowatts per month – greater than half of an average Vermont household’s energy consumption, according to estimates by the Vermont Department of Public Service. The panels are also designed for net metering: The electricity generated is routed first to the owner’s residence or business. Any excess is fed back into the grid and is effectively sold back to the utility in credits as the owner’s electric meter runs backward.

To offset the cost of installing residential systems, AllEarth Renewables offers power purchase agreements. Customers pay a reduced amount of $4,400 up front for the panel and over the next five years pay for the solar power they produce at a cost equal to what they would have paid the electric utility. At the end of the five-year period, customers can renew the agreement for five more years or purchase the panel at fair market value, estimated to be 30 percent of the original price. If a customer decides to purchase the panel, half of the up-front payment ($2,200) is credited towards the purchase.

Each panel is equipped with a wireless reporting system that transmits daily data on energy production. This data provides current owners with information about their own trackers’ production and also allows prospective owners to gauge the production that they can expect.

Encouraged by the demand for solar technology within the state, AllEarth Renewables is planning to expand beyond Vermont. The company hopes that out-of-state demand will allow it to increase manufacturing capacity and hire more employees while remaining rooted in Vermont.

Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted via

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
July 7, 2011