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Signs of the times

I miss the little Burma Shave signs, but I thought big, highway billboards went out with Lady Bird Johnson's efforts long ago. However, I've recently noticed new billboards on my drive between Grants Pass and Yreka, and they are all for the same discount liquor place. What's happened? If these are now OK, will we soon see more springing up? Not looking forward to this "road spam."

— Kurt R., Rogue River

For decades, Oregon was known for having some of the toughest billboard laws in the country. That changed in 2006 when the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the state's statute that placed restrictions on billboards in commercial or industrial areas violated free-speech protections.

The statute, originally enacted to comply with Lady Bird's Highway Beautification Act, effectively capped the number of billboards in the state at just under 1,700. After the court case, the state had to create a new sign law, and in the year between the court decision and passage of the new law, an additional 150 to 200 signs were erected, according to Wendy Elstun, program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation's Outdoor Advertising Sign Program.

That means just under 2,000 billboards are permitted in the state. No new signs can be built above the cap level, but existing signs can be moved or taken down to give the permit holder a credit toward erecting a new sign.

Elstun said signs put up during the year between laws still had to meet requirements for setbacks, size, placement, etc. Some of those signs didn't meet those rules and had to be taken down; in some cases litigation is pending.

A Jacksonville lawyer, Alan Herson, was among those who pushed to overturn the state's billboard law. Herson, whose son owned a billboard company, said in news stories that many of the more than a dozen cases he's filed in California and Oregon were settled because it was difficult to craft a sign ordinance without abridging the First Amendment's right to free speech.

In Jackson County, Herson fought for the right of Callahan's Lodge to erect an illuminated sign off Interstate 5 near the Siskiyou Summit, which was opposed by county officials and the state of Oregon.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.