The familiar signs beginning to appear along local roads are a dead giveaway: Campaign season is here. It’s been a busy year for campaigning already on the national level, with presidential politics already bringing candidates’ ads to the local airwaves and residents’ yards. But while it will be some months before any national political attention returns to Alaska for the general election, statewide campaigns for other offices are just beginning to ramp up. In practical terms, that means more signs along the roadway, many of which are illegal under Alaska law. And while such signs have always been an issue, that doesn’t make them less in violation of the law. Candidates and their supporters should take care to abide by the rules as a gesture of their willingness to follow the law while in office.
Alaska’s law on roadside signs is among the more restrictive state policies on the matter across the U.S. It states that all manner of advertising signage, whether political or business-related, must be at least 660 feet from state highways and rights of way. The “highway” classification extends further than you might think, encompassing not only highways named as such, like the Parks, Glenn, Dalton, Steese and Alaska highways, but also other major routes maintained by the state, such as the Johansen Expressway and Chena Hot Springs Road.
Enforcement is a trickier matter. For state roads, enforcement is the responsibility of the Department of Transportation, with a handful of caveats. Most importantly, sign enforcement isn’t an issue to which the department voluntarily devotes resources. That’s understandable given the necessity of handling larger matters such as road maintenance and upgrades on a budget facing extreme pressure. That means the department tends to only respond to signs about which they receive complaints, which is an incomplete but more cost-effective solution.
Even that level of enforcement, however, is subject to restriction. Officials must notify a property owner 30 days in advance of the removal of an illegal sign, a requirement that means most offending signs are never removed at all. The only circumstance in which DOT officials can remove signs immediately is when they’re located in the right of way, the roadway or other public property.
Existing state and local law isn’t overly burdensome to residents’ ability to express their political preferences or affiliations. Local borough code provides for the display of political signs on one’s own property so long as it complies with state law and doesn’t obstruct the view of pedestrians or motorists, so a typical 1-foot-by-2-foot yard sign shouldn’t be an issue unless you live directly on a highway.
Yet on a drive across town during political campaign season, an Interior resident is virtually guaranteed to go by one or more illegal campaign signs directly adjacent to the roadway, often in the right-of-way or on the shoulder or sidewalk. Given that state resources to combat the problem are minimal, candidates and their supporters should be proactive in placing signs in accordance with the law — or, failing that, moving them to a legal location when apprised of their illegal status. While political speech is an important and protected part of American civic discourse, starting out one’s campaign for public office by flouting a state law isn’t appropriate. And while removing the signs in a timely manner once an election is over isn’t addressed by law, doing so is a gesture that will keep your neighbors happy.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,