MONTPELIER, Vt. — For 40 years, it's been the guardian of the state's pastoral landscapes, keeping interstates and back roads clear of outdoor advertising.
Vermont's billboard ban has always been a sacred cow, and a distinction few other states hold. But an exemption to it — approved by lawmakers and awaiting Gov. Jim Douglas' signature — has some worrying that roadside signs could return.
Crafted in the final hours of the Legislature's session on May 3, the measure was aimed at preserving a "See Bellows Falls" mural recently painted on the side of a barn just off Interstate 91. But the language of the bill opens the door to the erection of similar signs elsewhere.
"I don't think Vermonters realize that now billboards can start appearing all over the state," said John Zicconi, a spokesman for the state Agency of Transportation. "It doesn't allow billboards along the interstate, but as you drive around Vermont, you might start seeing something you haven't seen in 40 years."
Alaska, Hawaii and Maine are the only other states that ban billboards. Vermont's ban took effect in 1968, prohibiting new billboards and giving the owners of existing ones five years to remove them.
The ban is beloved by Vermont visitors and residents alike.
"Our guests are primarily from New England and the mid-Atlantic, and driving through that geography and then getting to Vermont, there's a clear difference in seeing mountains and open fields and not signs," said Joseph Sutton, 59, owner of the Waybury Inn, a 14-unit inn in Middlebury.
The brouhaha started over the Bellows Falls mural, a 7-by-31-foot mural that depicts a vintage sedan headed south on Route 5 under the words "See Bellows Falls Vermont, 2½ miles south on 5."
Commissioned by the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance in October, the mural was ordered removed by the state Travel Information Council, an obscure seven-member agency tasked with enforcing the billboard ban.
The Bellows Falls group went to lawmakers in a desperate bid to bypass the travel council, and it worked.
As part of a transportation bill, legislators included a provision exempting murals that promote downtowns, provided they're hand-painted, on the outside of a structure that's existed on the site for at least 25 years and are located no more than 3 miles away from the destination they promote.
H. 889 also restricts wording on the murals to words relating to the direction, distance and name of the downtown. It doesn't allow product advertising and bans signs visible from an interstate highway.
The exemption is opposed by the state Agency of Transportation, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Travel Information Council, all of which consider it bad policy.
"It is inappropriate to create a specific exemption to a statute that is one of Vermont's signature environmental achievements," John Sayles, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, wrote in a memo to lawmakers.
State Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, a Democrat whose district includes Bellows Falls, called the state's position absurd.
"There's no one that would fight harder for upholding Vermont's billboard law than me. But this is an example where bureaucrats in government are not exercising common sense when they interpret Vermont's billboard law," Shumlin said. "I don't believe anyone can logically argue that this is the beginning of a slippery slope."
Sutton, who sits on the Travel Information Council, said he hoped the exemption, if it became law, didn't lead to unrestricted growth in road signs. "But we shall see," he said.
Zicconi, the Agency of Transportation spokesman, said the language of the exemption applied to two dozen places in Vermont with "downtown" designations.
"At least today, there are 24 places in Vermont where these things can happen," he said. "That's 24 towns. If there's four sides of town, you could have four of them. We literally could have these things all over the state."
The mural's painter, third-generation sign painter Frank Hawkins, 57, is bemused by all the fuss. He's thrilled, albeit surprised, that his mural will stay up, he said.
"The anti-billboard law is one of the selling points of Vermont life," he said. "I'm amazed the Legislature did what they did. I figured it would get coded out."