Retired Librarian Takes on MDOT, Legislature Over Billboard Law

By December 11, 2002News

Dec. 6, 2002

BY FRED GRAY
Petoskey News-Review Staff Writer

KINCHELOE — While driving along I-75 three years ago, retired prison librarian Jean Karrer of Kincheloe noticed

there was something unusual about the dozen or so billboards along both sides of I-75 just north of Rudyard in the snowswept eastern reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

On inspection she noticed that the trees and bushes in front of the signs on the state right of way had been severely trimmed, or in her word, “destroyed,” evidently to increase the visibility of the billboards from the highway.

That piqued her curiosity and as she looked further into the mystery, she became convinced that there was trickery afoot, and she uncovered layer after layer of state and agency policy, often in apparent conflict.

Her approach — to write brief letters of protest to a weekly community newspaper — earned her a lawsuit filed by the owner of the local sign company, whom she called a “felon” for destroying trees and vegetation surrounding his billboards.

And her outspokenness has caused a rift with her three children, who press her to retract her published statements, something she has so far refused to do.

“They all think I’m crazy for getting involved in this. They wanted me to recant, to say that I was mistaken. I said, ‘No. I raised you differently. A right is a right and I will not lie,'” Karrer says. “So they’re still worried about their mother. That’s all right. That’s why I stayed up here, to live up here instead of going down below.”

Karrer’s arguments boil down to this: The issuance of trimming permits by the Michigan Department of Transportation conflict with state law that forbids destruction of trees to improve the visibility of billboards.

And the issues she has raised are at the heart of changes that have been proposed to the Highway Advertising Act of 1972 — changes aimed at removing the clear and admitted conflict between law and policy.

No one will say that Karrer’s low-key campaign, waged through a series of precise, spirited letters penned on her antique wooden desk, has been the sole motivating force behind the changes being debated in Lansing.

But she has the attention of MDOT officials, and her legislators, Rep. Scott Shackleton, R-Sault Ste. Marie, and Sen. Walter North, R-St. Ignace.

And she has the support of local and county officials, who are currently studying how to protect the I-75 corridor from St. Ignace to the Soo from new billboards, and of Scenic Michigan, the public interest organization headed by Debbie Rohe of Petoskey, which battles their proliferation statewide.

Karrer’s arguments focus on the meaning of a single word: “Destroy.”

State law makes it a felony to “destroy trees or shrubs within a highway right of way for the purpose of making a sign, whether proposed or existing, more visible.” The law says nothing, so far, about trimming.

Dictionary definitions of “destroy” include acts that fall short of total annihilation: To destroy can mean to break up or ruin, or to make useless.

Karrer argues that topping trees essentially destroys them as they are rendered useless for years, never to grow back to their original shape, and thus any MDOT permit that allows for severe trimming of trees violates state law.

She also says the tall, mature pines that line long stretches along the west side of I-75 were originally planted to form a windbreak to protect motorists from the “unforgiving winds from the west.”

She says that when trees are topped for long stretches to improve visibility of billboards, they break the continuity of the windbreak and subject motorists to sudden gusts of wind.

“Wind is a dangerous factor up here. They’ll close the bridge during high winds. And when you’re driving I-75 and you don’t have a windbreak, you’re subject to sudden gusts of wind and snowdrifts, and on a slippery highway, that’s dangerous,” Karrer says.

“From March 1998 until January 2002 there were 20 rollovers and six cars in the ditch in the three or so miles between the Kinross and Rudyard exits, where the billboards are located.”

In her letter published last June in the Community Voice weekly newspaper, circulation 1,700, Karrer wrote:

“These open, cut areas are killers. The wanton destruction of state property along the I-75 right of way must stop. We want the beauty of Chippewa County back and we want highway safety.”

Karrer appealed to Michigan State Police and the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department to enforce the law. So far she has heard nothing from law enforcement.

She has heard from Ron Roe, owner of MacInnes Advertising of Rudyard. Roe is certain he has acted properly, having obtained permits from MDOT to “trim spruce in front of existing billboards” in specified locations in the state’s right of way.

The permits, which include approved sketches attached to the application, state that trees “may be trimmed to a resultant height of 6-8 feet. All work must be done by a certified arborist.”

Ari Adler, MDOT’s director of communications, admits the statutes on the subject are vague even to the point of conflict, but he says many state laws are subject to interpretation.

“We issue permits for trimming but not for complete removal. If they go in for trimming, they tend to expand and end up whipping trees out. Then we have to work out restitution. So there are limitations on what they can do.”

MDOT, in a nine-page manual on issuance of permits to clear vegetation around highway advertising, takes full responsibility for the process. But it makes no mention of the Highway Advertising Act, or Sec. 11 making it criminal to destroy trees.

The MDOT manual even says individual plants may be relocated or removed to reduce the obstructed view, provided that such action does not constitute an infringement of federal, state or local laws or regulations.

Adler cites a 1921 state statute that gives “authorities having jurisdiction over roads” the power to approve or deny requests to cut, destroy or otherwise injure any shade or ornamental tree or shrub growing within the limits of any public highway within the state.

The early statute is much more lenient to offenders than the Highway Advertising Act, providing for a fine of not more than $100 or imprisonment in the county jail for a period not exceeding 30 days, or both.

In contrast, Sec. 11 of the Advertising Act of 1999 subjects violators who commit similar acts to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine, or both.

Karrer sees the confusion in law and the permitting system as an excuse for continued destruction of trees to the detriment of the state’s natural charm and the safety of its residents.

“The thing is, these people up here hide behind the beauty and think they can get away with things,” she says.

© Petoskey News-Review Charlevoix Courier 2002