Highway 101 "scenic highway" designation has its perks

Drivers make their way down Highway 101.
Drivers make their way down Highway 101. Joe Johnston

There’s a campaign afoot to gain scenic highway status for U.S. 101, between Atascadero and Pismo Beach.

If it’s successful, that stretch of the 101 will be added to the list of the state’s most beautiful drives, which includes Big Sur, Death Valley and Yosemite Valley, as well as the stretch of Highway 1 between San Luis Obispo and Cambria.

The designation is reflected on state maps, and “scenic highway” signs are installed along the routes.

Although we don’t believe we need signs to attest to the natural beauty of our Highway 101 corridor — that should be readily apparent — we do see several advantages.

For one, it could help rid us of the bad case of billboard blight plaguing Highway 101, which is a major selling point promoted by organizers of the scenic highway campaign. They say there are nearly 50 billboards on the 101 between Santa Margarita and Avila Beach — far more than in nearby counties of Santa Barbara, Monterey and Ventura.

A scenic highway designation would make the county eligible for grants that could be used to retire billboards, scenic highway advocates told the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors during a recent session devoted to setting Planning Department priorities.

Atascadero resident Chuck Ward, who was among the speakers lobbying the Board of Supervisors, aptly compared the billboards to a speck of dust under a contact lens — a constant irritation, he said, as well as a distraction for drivers.

Supervisors were generally supportive of exploring the idea. Although they didn’t move the scenic highway item to the Planning Department’s main priority list, they indicated it’s an issue planners should work on as time permits.

Board Chairwoman Debbie Arnold pointed out that the SLO Council of Governments has already been discussing this and may be the more appropriate agency to move it forward.

We don’t really care which agency takes the lead, as long as one or the other does so.

In addition to helping eradicate billboards, we see other perks that make it an idea worth pursuing:

The scenic highway designation could be used to market the Central Coast to visitors who aren’t familiar with the area.

It’s a preservation tool. While new development isn’t prohibited, Caltrans requires a Scenic Corridor Protection program to guard against inappropriate projects, such as junkyards and gravel pits; to preserve natural landmarks; and to protect views of hillsides by minimizing development on steep slopes.

Last but not least, there are bragging rights that come with the designation. (“You’ve got an Ikea? How nice for you! We’ve got a scenic highway ”)

Bottom line: The natural beauty of the Highway 101 corridor sets our county apart. Preserving it is one of the best ways to attract visitors to our communities; to draw the attention of employers looking to open clean, high-tech industries; and to serve as a daily reminder of why we decided to make this our home.

If a scenic highway designation can help protect that, local leaders should move on it.