On Thursday, I had the honor of speaking with former Washington state lawmaker, senator and attorney general Slade Gorton.
Slade Gorton was first elected to the Washington state Legislature in 1959 and would serve there until 1969, becoming one of the highest ranking members. During his time in the Legislature, Gorton took part in the refining and passing of the Highway Advertising Control Act of 1961 and Washington State’s Scenic Vistas Act — the legislation that set the stage for legal challenges against the Hamilton billboard, which continues to bark political statements over Interstate 5 in Napavine.
Washington was one of 23 states to voluntarily take part in a federal bonus program, which allowed them additional transportation funding for enacting such legislation.
“I was always very proud of our state because our state highways are much more attractive than other states,” said Gorton, referring to restrictions on billboards and other roadside clutter.
These early 1960s laws predated Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, as a gift to his wife, in 1965. The HBA required all states to follow stricter billboard laws, similar to Washington State, or federal transportation funding could be withheld.
Gorton pointed out that the federal laws pertaining to billboards had numerous exemptions, including exemptions in zoned commercial and industrial areas. Gorton noted billboard laws do not apply to Native American tribal members.
It was fascinating to hear Gorton retell the contextual timeline from the legislative and legal perspective. For someone like me, who doesn’t have first-hand memories of the 1960s and ’70s, it pulled together many of the archives and documents I had collected.
The state Legislature passed the Scenic and Recreational Highway Act of 1967, which established the state’s scenic byways system, and added thousands of miles of highways to be covered under the beautification acts.
November 1967 is where we see one of the first political protest billboard from Alfred Hamilton regarding this particular topic in The Chronicle archives. It read, “There are no billboards in Russia!” — complete with a backwards “R” — with smaller text that said “A R Hamilton, 7 Turkeys” in the lower left (“7” was part of Hamilton’s branding).
The John Birch Society, which inspired many of Hamilton’s sign statements, was known for their anti-communist views.
In 1969, Slade Gorton — a Dartmouth and Columbia Law graduate — was elected Washington state attorney general. It was now his job to enforce these laws on behalf of the state. The state began officially enforcing billboard laws in the spring of 1970, with the first letters issued to offenders.
In June 1970, Yard Birds was notified that six of their billboards were no longer in compliance with state law and were declared a public nuisance.
After the state Supreme Court upheld key portions of the state’s billboard laws as constitutionally permissible in 1970, the state Legislature then significantly amended the Highway Advertising Control Act in 1971, and began actively enforcing the new state billboard regulations.
Instead of a distance requirement, the Scenic Vistas Act of 1971 updated the state laws to read: “Except as permitted under this chapter, no person shall erect or maintain a sign which is visible from the main traveled way of the interstate system,” unless it fell into a prescribed exemption — such as an on-premises advertising sign.
The state first filed for removal of Hamilton’s Uncle Sam sign in November of 1971, on the grounds that the billboard was not located on the actual business property.
But Alfred Hamilton was a smart man — he wouldn’t let go of his billboard without a fight. He fought and was able to take advantage of the new billboard law that required him to be compensated by the government for the removal of his billboard.
In 1974, the then State Highways Department (now WSDOT) reached a settlement to this effect and the Uncle Sam sign was removed from the east side of the freeway.
Hamilton removed his billboard in August 1974.
But a new billboard appeared in December 1974 — on the west side of the freeway. Hamilton later relocated it again, closer to a structure on the same property, to skirt yet another legal challenge from the Highways Department.
This set the stage for a showdown between Alfred Hamilton and the State Highways Department starting in 1975, while Slade Gorton was state attorney general.
After a lengthy legal process, and a trial that included local jurors visiting the site of the billboard at Hamilton Farms, it was determined that Hamilton’s sign did, in fact, advertise his business, completely irrespective of the political messages frequently on the board.
Ultimately, the state lost its appeal of the local Superior Court decision by the late Judge Dale Nordquist, and Uncle Sam remained, later being located to its present location following the sale of the Hamilton Farms property to National Frozen Foods around 1995.
Today, the Hamilton billboard no longer advertises anything, apparently contrary to the very state statute they asserted legally covered their sign activities.
Gorton and his staff had read my previous piece on the Hamilton billboard and the lack of advertising prior to me talking with him Thursday.
“Sounds like you’ve got a story with legs,” Gorton said when we spoke on the phone.
In this case, legs all the way to the attorney general’s office.
Trevor McCain, an outdoor advertising and motorist information sign specialist for WSDOT, notified me this week that the AG’s office is, in fact, in the process of reviewing the legalities of the Hamilton Billboard, after reading The Chronicle.
An update should come from the AG’s office within a few weeks.
After last week’s piece on the Hamilton sign, there was a common question: If the Hamilton Billboard isn’t legal, then what about that religious billboard south of Kelso, on the east side of Interstate 5?
Next time you drive by (or check it out on Google Earth), look in the middle of the two billboards — there is a sign that says “Gospel signs available, gospelsigns.org” between the two billboards with the religious statement.
The display is literally advertising religious signs, which falls within the state statute.
Brittany Voie is The Chronicle’s senior media developer. She welcomes correspondence from the community by email at email@example.com.