Sign looks to avoid exit

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The Casa de Fruta billboard along highway 101 north bound just south of the highway 156 off ramp.

Casa de Fruta sign on 101 could cost county thousands to remove
Casa de Fruta sign on 101 could cost county thousands to remove

The proposed sale of Caltrans property on Hwy. 101 east of Rocks Road has raised questions about whether San Benito County will have to reimburse Casa de Fruta tens of thousands of dollars if the tourist destination’s sign is forced to be removed.

    At issue is the county’s sign ordinance, which in 1992 gave existing signs at the time 10 years to be removed – by 2002. Now a decade after that, the county still has not mandated the removal of signs, including the Casa de Fruta billboard.

    Caltrans does not want to have any legal issues tied to property it sells, so it has required that Casa de Fruta obtain a permit from the county to keep the 1960s-era sign on the oak-studded hillside on the northbound side of 101 between Rocks Road and the Hwy. 156 off-ramp. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Hwy.101 through San Benito County is designated as a scenic corridor, where new advertising signage is not permitted and existing signage requires a permit.

    While the county is also willing to let the sign remain where it has been since 1968, its General Plan and existing sign ordinances do not contain provisions to allow the issuance of a sign permit for that. Also, the state Business and Professions Code mandates that no advertising displays in existence before Nov. 6, 1978 may be removed without the payment of compensation if the sign was lawfully erected – as this one was.

    “In general along the 101 frontage there are other signs, but this is the only one we understand is being requested to be removed,” said Gary Armstrong, the county’s planning director, noting that the highway’s scenic corridor designation is also factoring in to these discussions. “Our counsel has written a letter to Caltrans saying we won’t get rid of the sign, but we also can’t provide a permit for it (at this time). That would require an amendment of the General Plan and zoning ordinances. It’s not an easy or quick solution.”

    At this week’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting, Supervisor Anthony Botelho – who represents the portion of the county where the sign in located – said the matter “really should be a simple fix. That’s another thing wrong with the government and its bureaucracy.”

    He then asked why the county couldn’t simply rescind its sign ordinance mandate for sign removal.

    Armstrong said that because the county “went silent on” the issue as the 2002 deadline passed for sign removal, multiple county regulations would have to be updated in order to resolve the issue.

“It’s not that simple, but we should just do it,” Botelho added. “It places properties in non-compliance and it’s a dark cloud hanging over them.”

    County Counsel Matthew Granger reminded the board that Caltrans requested that the county offer a permit for the sign, but “there was no legal way we saw, given the current ordinance, that we could permit the existing sign.”

    Because the county’s current sign rules could not allow for a permit, another option would be to pay “just compensation” to Casa de Fruta for the lost revenue generated by the sign if it were forced to be removed.

    That amount, he said, would likely be “hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    “The biggest problem for the county,” he added, “is the designation of 101 as a scenic corridor,” on which new advertising is restricted up to 400 feet from the centerline of the highway.

    Removing that designation “could be a very large task and not very popular with our constituents.”

    No one at the meeting was sure why the county allowed the 2002 sign removal deadline to pass without action.

    “What happened in 2002 when that came and went I have no idea,” Granger said.

    Forcing Casa de Fruta to remove the sign could result in a civil case, he noted.

    “At the end of the day, a judge would make a ruling (on compensation) and hand a bill to the county,” Granger said. “This could be a simple fix but for the designation of 101 as a scenic highway.”

    Joe Zanger of Casa de Fruta told the board that the value of the sign is in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars because they’re not making them anymore” on scenic highway stretches.

    He said he understands why Caltrans would want the property it is selling to not have legal issues associated with it.

    “Everyone wants to keep the board on the property,” Zanger said, mentioning that he had spoken with Caltrans that morning. “We’re getting closer. It’s all down to semantics between Caltrans and the county.”

    Casa de Fruta was given a 60-day notice at the end of December to resolve the issue, Zanger said, calling the process “frustrating.” San Benito County, he said, originally issued a permit for the sign in 1968 and the state issued a display permit in 1969. The company has paid its display fees to the state through 2013.

    Botelho, saying “we need to deal with this” and “it’s not just about Mr. Zanger’s sign,” directed staff to resolve the issue. Supervisor Margie Barrios suggested that the county write a letter to Caltrans saying the sign conforms to local rules because of the original permit issued more than 40 years ago.

    Supervisors are expected to revisit the issue at a future meeting.

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