An embattled billboard that’s considered a critical draw for Fulton County tourism is putting federal funding for the New York State Thruway at risk.
Though congressional representatives and local leaders have lined up in support of the sign, the state Department of Transportation is demanding the billboard — which advertises the Johnstown-Gloversville Holiday Inn and is visible from the Thruway between Canajoharie and Fultonville — be taken down. It was illegally rebuilt in 2006, in violation of highway beautification laws on the books since 1965, federal authorities say.
The sign points eastbound motorists to the hotel, accessible from Exit 28 in Fultonville. From the sign, the hotel at 308 N. Comrie Ave. in Johnstown is a drive of slightly more than 12 miles.
It is protected by state legislation signed in August 2012 at the behest of numerous public officials, but that law is being called invalid because it is contradicted by federal law, which takes precedence over state law, according to letters sent to hotel manager Jim Landrio and his attorney.
Landrio pointed Friday to a long list of supporters sending letters to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asking for reconsideration:
• Dustin Swanger and Gregory Fagan, chairman and vice-chairman of the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth, the county’s economic development arm.
• Sarah J. Slingerland, mayor of Johnstown.
• Mark Kilmer, president and CEO of the Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce.
• Swanger in his capacity as president of Fulton-Montgomery Community College.
• U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook; Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh; and Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
Landrio said Friday the sign brings travelers not only to his hotel but also to other businesses and attractions in Fulton County.
“This sign is doing good for our community,” he said.
The sign, 20 feet tall and 100 feet wide, sits on land owned by Winford Peck of Yatesville Creek Road, Sprakers.
Federal law limits outdoor advertising within 660 feet of the highway’s right-of-way in urban areas and beyond 660 feet in non-urban areas visible from the highway. The law makes exceptions in specific instances such as signs that pertain to natural wonders and scenic and historical attractions.
The hotel apparently doesn’t fit any of those criteria.
Despite the clamor for keeping the sign where it is, the state Department of Transportation has been asking since April that it be taken down.
In an April 12 letter to Landrio, Mary Beth Bell, acting director of the state DOT Office of Right of Way, said the 2012 state law protecting the sign violates federal law.
“The [Federal Highway Administration] has determined that portions of I-90 are now ineligible for federal highway funds,” Bell said in the letter.
She wrote that an outdoor advertising permit granted by the state DOT in January 2012 remains in effect and called for the sign to be removed.
“NYSDOT requests your cooperation in removing the sign by May 20, 2013, so New York State may regain full eligibility of federal highway funds,” Bell said in the letter.
The DOT got a response from Landrio’s attorney, David R. Seward of Gloversville, asking for more time to consider the matter.
On July 17, a letter from a DOT lawyer indicates nothing has changed and again requests the sign be taken down — this time with a threat to “refer the matter to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution.”
The sign became a focus of controversy after severe weather in 2006 knocked it down.
It was installed as many as 50 years ago — before the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965 banned construction of such billboards. That meant it was grandfathered in and remained legal the next 40 years — until it blew down.
The Highway Beautification Act, as its name suggests, was aimed at improving the view along the country’s interstate highway system, according to the website of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.
The website cites then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s statement supporting the law: “I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.”
The law sought to control outdoor advertising, called for the removal of some signs and stipulated that junkyards visible from highways be hidden from view to improve scenery.
Typically, structures that are grandfathered can stay unless they are destroyed, in which case anything new built in the same spot has to comply with current law.
The sign was replaced after the 2006 storm, at a cost of roughly $80,000, sparking requests by the state to take it down since it had lost its grandfathered status.
As with other forms of federal assistance, federal highway aid is contingent on the recipient following federal laws.
“The state statute recognizes that federal law pre-empts it and that FHWA requires the sign to be removed,” state DOT spokeswoman Carol Breen said in an emailed statement. “Failure to comply could affect federal funding. We are working with the owners and FHWA to resolve this issue.”