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New Sign on 203 draws controversy

May 4, 2012

It was supposed to be a done deal.

On a recommendation from the county’s Local Transportation Committee, Mammoth was going to have a lighted, changeable-message sign on S.R. 203 as motorists head out of town.

But on Wednesday evening’s Town Council meeting, the project ran into some unexpected opposition—from the public, the council itself, and at least one member of the committee that approved it to begin with.

“As a member of the LTC,” said Mono County Supervisor Larry Johnston, “we took a look at this sign and we were shown the photographs, but the photograph didn’t show the sign.

“I think if we’d had a photograph that showed the sign, you’d see that it’s completely inappropriate.

“Size matters, and this sign is a freeway-oriented sign for 70 mile-an-hour traffic in an urban area. If you reflect for a moment when this sign would be most appropriate, it’s when there’s inclement weather and you’re going 20 miles an hour and under chain control. You don’t need a big sign.”

The sign is to be situated on a 27-foot pole structure that Caltrans District Director Tom Hallenbeck said is to be “Tenney Green.”

The panel itself is to be 30 feet wide and 6-feet, 9-inches tall.

The transportation committee understood all along that its purpose was to warn motorists of highway conditions on U.S. 395 and flash wildlife warnings, along with state-sponsored messages such as “Click It or Ticket’ and to report drunk drivers.

Yet in spite of the fact that bids for the sign are to be awarded within the next month and construction due this summer, a last-minute effort to stop it surfaced at the council meeting.

“We have the most incredible vistas here,” said town planning commissioner Elizabeth Tenney, the target of Hallenbeck’s earlier gibe.

“People come to Mammoth not just for the skiing and the hiking and the biking and all the rest, but because it is such a unique and special place. 

“The proposal from Caltrans is for something that’s completely urban and not consistent with our natural surroundings.  We’ve been doing just fine with the sign saying 395 were open or closed, and with the chain control sign.

“I’ve learned the meaning of cumulative impact and drip-drip-drip, one after the other. Pretty soon you’ve just ruined it and it’s gone.”

From the dais, councilman Matthew Lehman also expressed doubts.

“The problem I have with this sign is that it’s just so urban,” he said.  “If there were something that had a nice monument around it, I could see that. But the problem I have is that it’s not very compatible with the area.”

Still, the sign is going to go through. The council took no action to stop the process, particularly after it heard from sign supporters John Eastman, Skip Harvey and Rick Wood.

Said Eastman: “It’s clear to me that this comes down to an aesthetic, visual issue versus a public safety issue, and I’m going to choose public safety over aesthetics any day.”

Harvey and Wood said they agreed with Eastman, but Wood tried to put the issue into some perspective.

“We’re always trying to find balances, and in some instances you can’t find that perfect balance. We speak of urbanization but we invite two-to-four million vehicles here ever year.

“I hate to say it but we are urban. We’ve got a traveling public, we invite them up here in their vehicles and I don’t see that changing significantly.”

The last word, though, came from Mayor Jo Bacon.

“My feeling is that it’s overkill. We were originally thinking about something that was much smaller. With Internet access and people using smartphones checking what road conditions are, it is, to me, just so big that that I just can’t accept the visual impact.”

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