Signs of concern
Bob Oakes has owned CBC Rental & Supply at its current location at Milepost 90 next to the Sterling Highway for five years.
He said he has had trouble dealing with the Alaska Department of Transportation before. So much so it's starting to affect his day-to-day operations.
"They are stopping my business," he said Wednesday. "I almost shut my doors down. These people are ridiculous."
What has Oakes most upset is a letter delivered to him Tuesday inviting him to a public meeting being hosted from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. today at the Sterling Elementary School regarding the identification and removal of encroachments on state rights of way along the highway his business borders.
Oakes thinks the letter regards the sign advertising his business. He said, however, that the sign in question is located on his property and not state right of way, which is contrary to how he interpreted the letter.
"Basically, this piece of paper says I'm in violation, that I can't have anything within view of the road," he said.
Oakes said he and a string of other businesses located along the Sterling Highway from Mileposts 90 to 82 in the Sterling area received these letters, which he can only interpret to read that his signs, as they currently stand, are illegal. Oakes said he has become frustrated over the matter.
"I've been here 40 years and I'm about ready to leave," he said. "I have no use for anybody in the Department of Transportation."
However, Oakes said he and other business owners plan to show up in force to the meeting to voice their concerns.
Rick Feller, a DOT spokesman, said the section of highway and its rights of way - a piece of real estate owned by the state of which the DOT is a steward when it connects to a highway - are under scrutiny because of an improvement project currently under way.
That project, a repaving of the eight-mile stretch of road, is being funded with federal money, Feller said, and therefore DOT has "certain obligations."
"We need to make sure that the encroachment issue within that section of right of way ... have been resolved by one of two ways - by either permitting the encroachment to make it legal and permitted or to move that encroachment outside of the right of way," he said.
Essentially, there are two types of encroachment issues - signs and everything else, he said.
Any sign that's not a DOT regulated sign, such as a traffic sign, and is located in the state's right of way is "not permissible," he said.
"With other encroachments, if there is a flower garden, if there is some other landscaping that sort of thing, those are things we can work with the property owners to bring into compliance ... through the permit," Feller said.
Two things prevent the DOT from permitting signs - an anti-billboard referendum passed by Alaskan voters and various federal beautification acts, he said.
Jill Reese, a DOT project manager, said there were originally about 40 properties in the eight-mile stretch in violation of right of way policies. However, through mitigation efforts, that number is down to 20 to 23 properties.
"Most of those, I would think, are things that are simple enough the owners are just going to move out of the way," she said. "The ones that are more difficult, we want to talk to them individually and try and get a plan going for them to be able to comply."
Reese said the meeting is to spread information about what complies with state right of way guidelines. Each property is different and right of way conflicts will likely be handled on a case by base basis, she said.
"We didn't want to get out there and surprise people and start getting them all upset - we wanted to give them good information," she said.
Feller said the DOT is trying to be more proactive in its efforts to reach out to property owners with this project as to develop a more improved template for other projects around the state.
However, the issue regularly ignites a "pull and tug" between DOT requirements and what Feller described as an Alaskan philosophy of independence.
"There are those who think that they should have a right to put signs in the right of way and that it should be allowable to do so," he said. "As stewards and public employees, we don't make the laws, but we are responsible for enforcing those."
However, Feller said in cases like Oakes', if a sign is moved off right of way property, owners may do as they like so long as those signs conform with any other state, borough or local regulations.
Reese said DOT staff hasn't received a sizeable amount of backlash on the issue.
"I think that there are going to be a lot of public questions at the meeting and so maybe people are just waiting to talk about it there or get additional information," she said. "But ... I think they knew we were coming. Some of these folks have had these signs in the right of way for some time and they talked to us about it in the past."
Mike Kunz, owner of Mike's Welding located at Milepost 82 on the Sterling Highway, said he plans to attend the meeting.
He said he parks a truck with signs advertising the dipnets for sale at his business and if the state makes him move the truck back, it would certainly lead to more headaches, if not a loss of business.
"It will make it way more confusing for people to find the place," he said. "The phone will ring off the hook and they'll say, ‘Where are you? We can't find you.' That type of scenario and then of course some people just drive right on by and don't even see you."
Regardless, Kunz said business owners in the area needed to stay aware of the issue.
"Us small business owners only have a couple of months out of the whole summer to make all of our money," he said. "If the government could just leave us alone in the month of June and July. Most of these people who are struggling just want to put out a sidewalk sign and they pull it in at night when they get done."