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Conway billboard proposal comment period extended

Local sleuth’s digging yields results

What laws govern billboards in Skagit County? Exactly what kind of billboard is being proposed by the 76 gas station owners east of the Conway exit?

The answers to those questions are one reason the county revised its “Notice of Development Application” for a proposed billboard east of Conway and extended the comment period to Feb. 24.

Residents of La Conner will not be surprised that one person probing these questions is Linda Talman.

“There was so much misinformation about the proposed sign,” she told the Weekly News. “A lot of it was contradictory and I wanted to get to the root of it.”

Known for her deep dives into La Conner town code and regulations, Talman says that in her “scattershot” investigation method, she “looks at everything and writes it down in no particular order and then it settles out in a pattern for me and then I can write to the issue.”

Talman looked first at pertinent county and state laws. As the county claims, Skagit County zoning section 14.16.120 does indeed permit billboards in Rural Freeway Service that provide small-scale commercial uses at certain Interstate 5 freeway interchanges outside of urban growth areas.

Digging deeper, however, she discovered the State Scenic Byway Act. I-5 from the Snohomish County line to the Bow Hill exit was designated a Scenic Agricultural Corridor in 2010 by the state legislature. Highway 20 and Chuckanut Drive are also scenic byways.

Does state law trump county law? She called the Washington Department of Transportation to find out. Afterwards, Roland Storme of Development Services in the WSDOT/Mount Baker Area sent the county an email clarifying that if the proposed billboard promotes an offsite use and is visible from I-5, it may be in violation of RCW 47.42.030 and WAC 468-66, which allow no signs except those “advertising activities conducted on the property on which they are located.”

What the proposed billboard will look like is also murky. The original notice described a “2-sided/faced Static electronic billboard sign”. The revised notice says “the proposed sign will NOT be digital but ‘static’ vinyl. The electric company will run illumination to the sign—just like the existing on-premises gas station sign that resides at the property.”

Moving on to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Talman discovered the federal Neotropical Migratory Birds Act, which protects birds that migrate from the Caribbean and South America to Alaska. WDFW is “obligated to protect migratory birds,” she said.

Having any lights on bothers birds passing through during the night, especially in rural areas, she learned. “ALAN (artificial light at night),” she told the county in her response to the notice, “is increasingly shown by researchers to be disorienting to birds – especially in rural areas – and can cause birds to circle and deplete their resources and never make it to their destinations.

“We are losing bird populations. It matters because they are integral to our agriculture, they are important to our economy and because they are beautiful and we want them to be here for generations going forward.”

Stopping by the Conway 76 station for a piece of candy, the Talmans found the only public notice facing Highway 534 had apparently blown away. A second, by the coffee stand, was obscured by cars waiting in line for beverages.

Talman passed the information on to the county, which fixed the signs and added a third one.

Overall, her legwork uncovered important information for the many residents objecting to the proposed sign.

“That coming home view, as everyone calls it, is precious to most of us who live in Skagit County, so we’re glad that people are looking into what is allowed in Scenic Byways,” said Molly Doran, Executive Director of the Skagit Land Trust, which has gotten many calls from citizens concerned about the billboard.

About her work, Talman is humble.

“I like sleuthing,” she said.


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