Family seeking to erect billboards on U.S. 97

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: July 05. 2007 5:00AM PST

MADRAS — In addition to mountain vistas, drivers on U.S. Highway 97 between Redmond and Madras might start seeing commercial billboards in farmland as part of one family’s Measure 37 claim.

Roger and Patricia Cunningham, who live on a farm near Crooked River Ranch in Jefferson County, and Marie Cunningham, Roger Cunningham’s mother, have filed a Measure 37 claim to subdivide their 325-acre property and put up a few billboards on the part of their land along the highway.

Jefferson County has waived all the regulations on the property, which Marie Cunningham has owned since 1961.

But the process could be held up by a state hold on Measure 37 claims and another state referendum to possibly amend the ballot measure that will go to voters this fall.

Although there were no county land use regulations in place in 1961, state rules govern highway billboards, so the Cunninghams will have to wait for a state waiver, said Sandy Mathewson, a senior planner with Jefferson County Community Development. Mathewson added that she is not aware of any other highway billboards in Jefferson County outside of Madras city limits.

She hasn’t heard much feedback about the prospect.

“I don’t think that crossed anyone’s mind. Of course, Measure 37, it’s pretty much wide open — if somebody acquired their property early enough, they can pretty much do whatever they want with it,” Mathewson said. “Once (people are) driving down the highway and see a bunch of big billboards sprouting up, we’ll probably get a lot of calls, but that’s if they can get the necessary state permits.”

Patricia Cunningham, 59, said her husband Roger, 61, has lived on the farm about eight miles north of Terrebonne “since he was in kindergarten.” Her mother-in-law, Marie Cunningham, now lives in Madras and, according to the text of their claim, Roger and Patricia Cunningham have owned a one-third interest in the farm since 1978.

The Cunninghams originally filed the claim in 2005 to subdivide the property, Patricia Cunningham said, and then decided to ask for an additional waiver to put up billboards.

“We just saw that as an opportunity maybe to gain a little revenue along that piece of the Measure 37 claim there, along the highway,” she said.

According to an estimate done for the Cunninghams’ Measure 37 claim, four two-sided billboards with triangular rotating images could be worth as much as $1 million.

Cunningham said that she and her husband have hay, grain, carrot seed and cattle on their farm, but are thinking about retirement in the next few years.

“Roger will be 62 here pretty soon, so, you know, we’re just looking at gearing back,” she said. “We were looking ahead and we thought the timing was right to make some changes and slow our pace down a little bit and, of course, things didn’t go as planned (with the Legislature’s decision to put a new referendum before voters).”

She added that she has not heard any complaints from neighbors about the billboard proposal, even though they have been notified.

“We don’t want to totally destroy our neighborhood because we’d like to still stay here if possible,” she said.

Mathewson said that the county sent letters June 13 to everyone with property within 750 feet of the Cunninghams’ notifying them of the Measure 37 claim. She added that neighbors would have had 15 days to appeal the county’s decision, but no one has spoken up about the proposal.

Billboards are not allowed on highways in Jefferson County unless the property owner can obtain authorization from the state, Mathewson said.

“The state is really the one who regulates billboards,” she said. “She is still subject to the state regulations pertaining to billboards because she hasn’t obtained a state waiver for those, so one of the conditions of our approval requires that she either get a waiver from the state or get the necessary permits from the state to allow her to have the billboards.”

Madras allows up to 18 billboards within city boundaries, but the total number is currently over that limit because of adjustments in the urban growth boundary, according to the city community development department. Billboards are prohibited in the city’s residential zones, according to Madras’ sign ordinance.

County Commissioner Mike Ahern said he is not sure the state will grant the Cunninghams’ waiver because state billboard laws are governed by the federal Highway Beautification Act, which was passed in 1965 and is also known as the Lady Bird Johnson Act.

“Personally, to be really honest, I don’t want to see it happen,” Ahern said, “but it’s not our battle.”

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