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Vermont Roadside Mural Still Stands

Bellows Falls

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The Vermont legislature has agreed that handpainted murals on barns, as long as they’re not visible from an interstate, are painted on structures more than 25 years old and are part of a designated downtown program (and are within three miles of that area), don’t violate the strict state laws that govern road signs.

Vermont, Maine, Hawaii and Alaska ban billboards. Tourists and residents support the stringent rules, which aim to prevent billboards from blocking the states’ scenic vistas.

The mural that caused a “made-in-Vermont” scuttle still stands in Bellows Falls, VT, handpainted by Frank Hawkins on the side of an old red barn, in vintage, ’50s postcard style. Hawkins, a third-generation sign painter, didn’t even know the brouhaha concerning the mural had occurred until the Associated Press called him for a quote.

“Bellows Falls is hurting, and here’s this little group trying to get people to come here, just begging someone to turn right instead of left.”

Hawkins’ 7 x 31-ft.mural, just off Interstate 91, had been commissioned by the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance in October 2007, for $3,000 (the alliance also spent $1,000 to repair the barn). Using traditional 1Shot paints and Zinsser primer, plus some home-ground pigments (“I hate latex,” Hawkins confessed), Hawkins depicted a charming, retro sedan veering off to see the pastoral landscape in Bellows Falls.

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The mural stood innocently off the highway, until a member of the state’s Travel Information Council, which keeps tabs on the billboard ban, read a local newspaper story about the mural and thought, if this mural stands, others will proliferate, and that it violated Vermont’s 40-year-old billboard ban.

The state, specifically the Travel Information Council, ordered the mural to be removed in February, but the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, in the spring of 2008, appealed to the state legislature to bypass the council and preserve the mural.

As part of a transportation bill, legislators exempted murals that promote downtowns with the aforementioned provisions. Also, text must relate to the direction, distance and name of the downtown, and exclude product advertising. The signs must not be visible from the interstate highway.

Hawkins, who said the anti-billboard law is one of Vermont’s selling points, agreed that legislators adopted a common-sense approach. He said the bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. Meanwhile, he wants to preserve classic handpainting skills and continues to offer his services as a “keeper of the brush.”

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