In early 2016, San Mateo County was exploring the idea of installing revenue-generating billboards along the Highway 101 and Interstate 280 corridors. Swift action by Committee for Green Foothills and its members stopped this project in its tracks, at least for now. An impending contract between a billboard company and San Mateo County that would have allowed new billboard locations to be scouted was never finalized. We continue our vigilance to ensure our region’s scenic roadways are not for sale.
The Most Profitable Locations for Billboards
San Mateo County Manager John Maltbie wrote three short but alarming sentences in a routine report to the board of supervisors on March 8, 2016 that immediately caught our eye. In the report, Maltbie noted that a proposal for billboards earning $7.875 million each over 30 years would soon be brought before the supervisors. “The first step in the process is an assessment by Allvision/Outfront Media of County-owned land along the Highway 101 and Interstate 280 corridors to determine the most profitable locations for billboards,” the report stated.
Committee for Green Foothills Takes Immediate Action
Upon reading the report, our Legislative Advocate Lennie Roberts immediately sent a letter of protest to county supervisors stating Committee for Green Foothills’ strong opposition to the proposal. “Highway I-280 traverses one of the region’s most scenic landscapes with unparalleled views of the Crystal Springs Watershed and Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and San Francisco Bay and the East Bay to the east,” she wrote. She then reached out to Committee for Green Foothills members, and over 1,000 added their voices in opposition to the idea by writing or emailing county supervisors.
San Mateo County’s vague language suggesting the possibility of billboards along I-280 and the strong opposition led by Committee for Green Foothills caught the attention of the media. Throughout March 2016 local and regional print, online and television media outlets covered the story including The Almanac, Bay Area News Group, NBC and CBS.
Committee for Green Foothills Legislative Advocate Lennie Roberts penned a guest opinion for the Almanac adamantly opposing the use of billboards to generate county revenue, particularly along the I-280 corridor, a stretch of billboard-free interstate surrounded by open space, watershed and grazing lands. A dedication sign near Daly City indicates that the Junipero Serra Freeway, as it is also known, is the “World’s Most Beautiful Freeway.”
The Law on Our Side
The billboard-free scenic beauty of the I-280 corridor is in part due to the intentions of our local community. As of 1980, nearly all of I-280 through San Mateo County is officially designated as a state scenic highway, with the exception of about 6.5 miles between San Bruno and Daly City. State scenic highways require that local governments protect their scenic corridors, including by controlling outdoor advertising, according to the Department of Transportation. Some local municipalities, like Redwood City, already have ordinances in place banning new billboards on public property; however, they are still allowed in many parts of the Bay Area.
Bay Area roads are famously busy, making new electronic billboards an enticing way for municipalities to increase needed revenue without raising taxes. In 2013, a similar billboard proposal by the City of Palo Alto was defeated thanks to vocal opposition from the local community. As these proposals arise, we will continue to insist that compromising our area’s natural scenic beauty and highway safety with visual clutter and advertising is too steep a price to pay.