Topic: Montpelier-Barre Times Argus

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

Fixing our roads: Vermont rebuilds with an eye to the future – Montpelier-Barre Times Argus Special Feature

Posted on December 20, 2011 by - Montpelier-Barre Times Argus, Rutland Herald

Fixing our roads: Vermont rebuilds with an eye to the future

Nathaniel Gibson

The destruction and flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene stranded several communities across Vermont — a shocking reminder of the significance of an infrastructure that sometimes gets taken for granted.

Roads and bridges are crucial links in any transportation network, especially in rural places where they often serve as the only option for movement between distant communities.

The state Agency of Transportation (AOT) has been meeting two of the major challenges raised by Irene’s destructive forces. It responded to the immediate damage from Irene and now is addressing the long-term planning issues associated with maintaining the state’s roads and bridges in the face of such intense weather events.

Initial response
Irene hit Vermont on Sunday, Aug. 28, bringing torrential rains that spawned severe flooding across the region. The AOT responded swiftly, working to be everywhere possible and quickly implementing temporary improvements to restore access.

State offices were closed on Monday, the day after the storm, because of flood damage. Despite this additional impediment, the AOT — one of the first lines of defense during natural disasters — assembled a team to monitor radio updates from the agency’s 65 maintenance garages and evaluate the scope of the damage.

By the end of that first day, the scale of the disaster had become apparent: roads and bridges across the state had been decimated by the storm, and 13 towns — Cavendish, Granville, Hancock, Killington, Mendon, Marlboro, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Rochester, Stock­bridge, Strafford, Stratton, and Wardsboro — were inaccessible.

By the next morning, Aug. 30, the AOT began setting up two incidence command response teams to assist with the deployment of resources and recovery efforts. An incidence command response team (ICRT) is commonly used by all levels of government to command, control, and coordinate emergency response.

The two teams were quickly deployed to Rutland and Dummerston, areas hardest hit by the storm, and were operational by 6 a.m. Sue Minter, AOT deputy secretary, said that the rapid deployment of both teams was crucial, as was getting the required communications technology set up within such a short time frame.

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[CAPTION] Route 4 in Killington and Mendon was washed out in several places, cutting off Rutland from the eastern part of the state.

The Dummerston ICRT included 53 consultants, 120 AOT district staff, 149 employees from the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT), 20 employees from the New Hampshire DOT, 166 National Guard members, and 60 contractors with various numbers of employees.

The Rutland ICRT included 49 consultants initially (this number later grew to 82), 200 AOT District Staff, 200 employees from the Maine Department of Transportation, 500 National Guard members from six states, and 125 contractors with various numbers of employees.

Minter estimates that contractors have deployed more than 1,000 employees combined to rebuild roads and bridges.

As the IRCTs fielded incoming calls, officials organized available resources and allocated them to the areas most in need of assistance. Minter notes that the IRCTs deployed the resources quickly and effectively, emphasizing the ongoing dedication of the team members, many of whom worked nonstop, 16-hour days.

By evening of Aug. 31, access was restored to 12 of the 13 communities that had been rendered inaccessible by the storm. The next day, work to provide full access to Wardsboro, the last isolated town, was complete.

Once access was restored to all communities, the AOT turned its focus to assisting utilities as they worked to restore power to residents across the state.

By Friday, Sept. 2 — five days after Irene — electrical power had been restored to the vast majority of residents, and AOT’s priority shifted to reestablishing the state’s east-west routes, vital to commerce and tourism.

On Sept. 16, a major milestone was reached with the reopening of Route 4 in Mendon. “We have teams working non-stop, these folks are so dedicated,’ said Minter.

In the short term
With cold weather approaching, AOT’s immediate focus now is to finish repairing the state’s roads. The agency has expedited the contract approval and ordering processes to move projects along as rapidly as possible within the parameters dictated by federal agencies.

“Our goal is to have everything traversable by winter,” said Rich Tetreault, AOT Chief Engineer. “People may have to drive a little slower in some locations, but they will be able to get where they need to go.”

Inspecting and opening bridges as soon as possible is another significant task. The AOT is making headway here, also. “Bridge crews from the state came and inspected structures in town within the first two days after the storm,” reported Keith Mason, foreman of the Pawlet Town Highway Department.

The AOT has inspected every bridge in the state at least once; some bridges have been re-inspected due to heavy rains that continued to fall after Irene. In some places, the AOT has been able to reopen bridges — but in many others, bridges were destroyed.

“In most of these cases we will be putting up temporary structures that will have to be rebuilt,” said Minter.

The majority of these temporary structures will be prefab steel trusses, which can be constructed much faster and require less foundation and concrete work. But each bridge site presents a unique situation that must be carefully evaluated, even for temporary structures.

In some cases, temporary bridges will be built off-alignment with roads to allow unhindered construction on permanent replacements. And in certain locations, temporary bridges will be longer than the bridges they are replacing, as this configuration requires less time for construction of foundations.

Once temporary fixes to the state’s roads and bridges are complete, AOT will shift its focus to the construction of long-term structures.

The flood disaster also highlighted the importance of secondary and tertiary town roads. In many towns where state roads became flooded, town roads higher up on mountainsides and further away from floodwaters provided access to areas that otherwise would have been cut off from the rest of the community. Most significantly, these roads connected people and communities to emergency services.

“Alternate routes enabled emergency response vehicles to get where they needed to be,” said Mason.

In the long run
Beyond initial recovery efforts, Irene also has raised a number of long-term questions.

Aware that climate change means a future that may hold more intense weather events, AOT is coordinating with the Agency of Natural Resources and the Climate Cabinet formed by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year.

The issue: to evaluate how the current infrastructure may need to be modified. These considerations include the sizing of culverts, road construction and locations, and stormwater and runoff management.

“We understand pretty well what’s needed to insulate ourselves against flooding events,” said Tetreault. “The Interstates and Route 7 fared well during Irene.” The fact that populations in Vermont have typically developed along river valleys is one of the main challenges that the AOT faces.

Tetreault reports that AOT is working with fluvial geomorphologists, or river scientists, from ANR to understand river conditions, the implications of road placement, and the long-term paths that rivers could take.

Such projections are essential components of AOT’s plans for the future. ANR’s assistance also is crucial for short-term fixes. Many complex factors must be weighed. And decisions made now will affect the state’s streams and rivers not only at the spot of construction or repair, but also far downstream and far into the future.

AOT’s goal is to work with rivers — not against them — and use the aftermath of the flooding as an opportunity to get things right.

“It’s a real opportunity for us to be thinking long-term, as we know that we have invested in those areas that have been so hard hit,” said Minter.

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

The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus Vermont Recovery Special Feature, Vol. 2 on September 23 to commemorate Vermont’s response to Tropical Storm Irene.

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