Feds say billboard near Thruway violates law

ROOT – The metal and wooden Johnstown Holiday Inn billboard in the town facing eastbound motorists on the state Thruway is the focus of a struggle between local officials and the state and federal governments.

First erected in 1959, the current incarnation of the sign is due to be taken down Monday because it isn’t up to federal standards.

“They’re going to take it down,” Fulton Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce Director Mark Kilmer said Thursday. “It will be a sizable loss to the region.”

The sign is scheduled to be taken down because authorities say it does not comply with the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965. That law banned construction of outdoor advertising within 660 feet of the highway’s right-of-way in urban areas and beyond 660 feet in rural areas visible from the highway. The federal law said the grandfathered-in sign could stay as long as it wasn’t changed, abandoned or destroyed.

Advertising motorists to the Holiday Inn off Exit 28, the sign was exempt from the federal regulations because it predated them. But the sign was knocked over by a high wind and had to be rebuilt in 2006, rendering it no longer exempt.

The current version of the sign advertises, “Exit 28 Johnstown – Full Service Hotel.” To the right of the sign is the Holiday Inn logo, name and phone number.

The sign on a small mountain is visible on the Thruway between Canajoharie and Fultonville, and it can be seen along Route 5S. It is 20 feet tall and 100 feet wide, sitting on land owned by Winford Peck of Yatesville Creek Road in Sprakers. The sign is just over 12 miles from the actual hotel on Route 30A in Johnstown.

The state Department of Transportation is demanding the billboard sign be taken down because it does not now comply with federal highway law and the state could lose federal highway funds over the matter.

Local state officials tried to help the private hotel. State legislation signed into law in August 2012 at the request of numerous local public officials is being called invalid because it is contradicted by federal law, which takes precedence over state law, according to letters sent to hotel Manager Jim Landrio and his attorney.

Landrio said Thursday there is a long list of local supporters who have sent letters to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx asking for reconsideration of the sign being taken down.

He is currently enlisting the help of three congressmen -U.S. Reps. Chris Gibson, Paul Tonko and Bill Owens.

“Monday is the day the sign has to be down,” Landrio said. “It’s actually in the hands of three congressmen. They are appealing to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Foxx.”

Landrio said the entire bureaucratic situation involving removal of the sign is not only a “blow” to the local Holiday Inn, but to many late-night motorists who travel the thruway and need to find a place to stop and spend the night. Many times, he said, the sign will divert traffic to his hotel and elsewhere.

“It is not only us,” he said. “This is an issue that hurts the efforts of an economically depressed area.”

Landrio said he knows of situations where because of the Holiday Inn sign, travelers have stopped in Fulton County, liked what they saw and ended up buying a home on either the Great Sacandaga Lake or Peck’s Lake.

Otherwise, he posed the question of why some travelers would even come to Johnstown, Gloversville or Fultonville in the first place – out of the way of the Thruway and not always a tourist “destination.”

“Any or all publicity” is a help, Landrio said, and the sign has worked for many years. In addition, he said, the sign has been known to help the Holiday Inn’s area competition as well, diverting tourists to other hotels and motels.

Due to an “act of of God” through the wind that blew down the original sign in 2006, Landrio said, the current tourism and service industry efforts are being punished.

Landrio declined to discuss monetary figures about the sign, including how much the Holiday Inn pays Peck for use of his property in Sprakers.

“They’re farmers,” he said. “They do rely on the income.”

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at [email protected]

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