Proposed exemption for Bellows Falls mural worries enforcement agencies

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(Host) A state panel says a mural painted on the side of a barn to promote the village of Bellows Falls is illegal because it violates the state billboard ban.

So lawmakers from the region tucked an exception to the ban into a transportation bill that’s still pending in Montpelier.

The proposed exemption for Bellows Falls isn’t sitting well in the agencies that enforce Vermont’s sign laws.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(SFX) traffic sounds

(Keese) The 30-foot-long painting looks like a vintage 1950s postcard. The barn it’s painted on is on Route 5, but the image is visible from the Interstate 91 exit ramp in Rockingham.

(Hunter) “And it depicts a shiny automobile – 1951 it says on the license plate – heading down a highway with a green field beside it and in the sky it says, ‘See Bellows Falls, Vermont.’ Then in a shield over in the right it says, ‘two and a half miles south on five.”’

(Keese) Charlie Hunter is a member of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, established when Bellows Falls joined the state’s Designated Downtown Program. Bellows Falls is a village in the town of Rockingham, with no interstate exit of its own.

The group raised $4,000 to have the mural painted. Hunter, an artist himself, says efforts like these have made this gritty post-industrial town a poster child for the creative economy.

Which is why he was surprised to learn the mural is illegal.

John LaBarge of the Agency of Transportation says it’s an attractive painting. But he says the Alliance didn’t do its homework on Vermont’s sign laws, which are intentionally among the nation’s strictest.

(LaBarge) “Now the question is do we enforce them or do we turn our back on them when some of them are nice looking and other ones aren’t nice looking?”

(Keese) LaBarge represents V-Trans on the Travel Information Council, the agency that enforces the sign laws. He says the painting violates the billboard ban on two counts: It’s visible from an off-ramp and has words directing people to another place.

The mural’s supporters offered to remove all the words EXCEPT Bellows Falls. But the Council said that wouldn’t solve the problem. So the group asked local legislators to step in.

Rockingham Representative Michael Obuchoswki says the answer they came up with is a very narrow exception to the law.

(Obuchoswki) “The effort has been to draft language that wouldn’t pierce the shield of the billboard law by making it very exclusive to the mural in question.”

(Keese) Senate President Peter Shumlin, whose district includes Rockingham, put the provision into the Senate transportation bill. He says he heard a few objections that the measure should apply to all towns, and not just one. The bill is now before a conference committee.

LaBarge says V-Trans and the Travel Information Council don’t consider the exception harmless.

(LaBarge) “I think one of the fears they had was that this is going to be the beginning of the end of the billboard law. Because they wonder what’s going to stop another entity like Pepsi Cola from coming in and do a retro painting. …Or what’s going to stop Stowe from buying a barn somewhere and saying, `Visit Stowe, Vermont, take exit so and so off the interstate,’ And so therefore we end up with a large proliferation of these signs across the state … and there’s nothing that would stop that.”

(Keese) The conference committee will decide whether or not to keep the provision in the transportation bill before adjourning.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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