For almost 50 years, motorists passing Bird Creek along the Seward Highway have witnessed a small outcropping of civilization among the spruce trees, steep peaks and mudflats that line the road from Anchorage to Seward. Roadside signs signaled a brief burst of commerce.
Those signs are mostly gone now except for one holdout -- Diamond Jim's Liquor Store, the slightly bawdy, pink and blue sign calling motorists to stop in for T-shirts, panties and “hardcore Alaskan gifts.”
The deadline to remove the signs or face removal by the state was July 1. But the owner of the sign, Mary Lou Redmond, isn't budging. She says Gov. William Egan, who served two non-consecutive terms from 1959 to 1974 and died in 1984, told her the sign could stay within the right of way after Diamond Jim's was moved from Portage following the 1964 earthquake.
“I'll chain myself to the sign if I have to,” she said.
'Last icon of freedom'
While no one with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) disagrees that Egan told Redmond to keep it there, but they said the laws have changed, and now it's time to clear the right of way that extends on each side of the highway or lose federal highway funding.
State Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, is outraged over the lack of leniency in the situation. For six years, his office has suggested multiple solutions, none of which has been met with any sincerity by the state.
Hawker said Redmond has his full support in keeping her sign. If she chains herself to it, he vowed to be right there with her.
“(Redmond's) the last icon of freedom in Alaska,” Hawker said.
Questions over moving the signs started in 2004, when federal money for Seward Highway improvements began flowing to Alaska. But it wasn't until 2006 that DOT received a letter from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA). After completing a tour of the Seward Highway between Miles 96-102 during the Safety Roadway and Recreational Improvements Project, the feds discovered the right of way wasn’t clear of encroachments -- specifically business signs.
Rick Feller, spokesman for the state department of transportation’s central region, said the FHA offered two suggestions -- clear the signs or reimburse the federal government the $20 million cost of the project.
“The basic law is pretty simple,” Feller said. “There can't be any private business signs located within a Federal Aid State Right of Way.”
30 businesses conformed
Last summer, the state worked with 30 businesses along the Sterling Highway to make sure their signs conformed. All encroaching signs have been moved or will be moved by this summer, without legal action, according to Jill Reese, the state Department of Transportation right-of-way agent.
But even in a small stretch of land near Bird Creek, the width of right of ways can vary dramatically. Indian House, located at Mile 103 of the Seward Highway, has a right of way of only 50 feet from the center line of the road. Other businesses, like Diamond Jim's and the Bird Ridge Motel, have a right of way of 150 feet from the center line.
Much of that is determined by when the property was first homesteaded or subdivided, Reese said. The Indian House property was entered by the Bureau of Land Management in about 1917. At that time, the right of way was only 50 feet. In years that followed, public land orders, issued by the federal government, required larger right of ways, depending on the type of road. The largest came in 1954 and required all highways to have a right of way of 300 feet, or 150 feet on either side of the road’s center line.
Many of the Bird Creek properties affected today were subdivided after the 1964 earthquake, when the larger right of way applied.
However, laws banning billboards along highways are not just a federal issue. In 1998, Alaska voters approved an initiative to ban commercial billboards along roadways.
In February, the state sent out letters asking remaining business owners from Mile 96 to Mile 102 to remove their signs in the right of way by July 1. Among them: the Bird Ridge Motel, the Birdhouse Garage, Turnagain House and the Brown Bear Saloon. Most complied, even if they just made the deadline.
Redmond's Diamond Jim's sign was the exception. And she's still hoping legislators can do something to save her sign.
Hawker doesn't think there's much to do at this point. In a March letter to Bird Ridge Motel owners Erik and Veronica Lambertsen, he expressed his disappointment in the state over the situation.
“At this time, the fact is that no degree of common sense will mitigate their zeal to conduct a 'successful right of way clearing action,' regardless of whether it is in the best interest of citizens, adds to public safety or kills the economic foundation of our community.”
Hawker said his office tried to offer multiple solutions.
• Relinquishing right of ways that seemed unnecessary or excessive.
• Right of way reserves that people could still use but the state could reclaim if needed.
• Easing state laws on right-of-way regulations and sign permitting.
None, however, superseded the federal regulations.
“The government is wrong,” Hawker said. “Government is serving its own needs. It's not looking at the needs and rights of the citizens, citizens being discriminated against when neighbors are not.”
When Redmond's sign will move or come down is yet to be determined, based on negotiations between her and DOT.
“The most important thing there is that we still have an open discourse with her and her family,” Feller said. “We're still hopeful of voluntary compliance.”
Barely beat deadline
Brown Bear Saloon owner Matt Williams complied by taking his roadside sign down after 31 years. At 10 p.m. on June 30, two hours before the July 1 deadline, it was gone.
Both of Redmond's business and the Birdhouse Garage have been offered money by the state to move their signs. Williams wasn't. However, failing to remove the sign could have meant a misdemeanor charge and a possible suspension of his liquor license.
It's been less than a week since the sign came down and Williams said he's seen no decrease in business. He knows his regulars will show up, but worries about tourists and others passing by who might not notice the saloon and motel anymore. He said some studies have shown roadside signs account for 25 percent of some small businesses' revenue
Williams said he's considering spending between $30-40,000 for a larger, brighter sign. He doesn't want to turn the Bird Creek area into an Alaska-version of the Las Vegas strip, but isn't sure what else to do.
“If that's the difference between survival and not surviving, I'll light my business up like a roman candle,” he said.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com