Recently The Washington Post reported that Maine, Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont have the fewest number of chain restaurants of any state in the country. Part of the reasoning it seems, in addition to the rural nature of each state, are such factors as educational attainment, voting patterns, population density and, above all, the percentage of residents commuting by car (though Maine seems to be an exception in this).

After reading this article it seemed to me that these four states were tied together in other ways as well. Doing further research on this particular group, I found that all four states had banned billboards from their landscapes. Hawaii was the first to do so in 1920 and Maine was the third state, in 1978, under the leadership of Gov. James Longley. (The law called for the phaseout of all commercial billboards by 1984.) Widely seen as a business-friendly governor, Longley must have understood the logic of this kind of a ban to boost business and tourism.

Just prior to the billboard ban, Maine enacted the bottle deposit law in 1976. As a conservation measure, it was widely seen as another way to clean up the landscape and protect the lands and waters in our state from visual and plastic pollution. Three attempts have been made over the years to retract the law, and all have failed, testament to the wishes of Maine people to maintain an environmentally responsible state. The last governor vetoed a bill that expanded the types of containers covered; his veto was promptly overturned.

The last state-acquired billboard in Maine, on Route 1 in York County, is cut down by chainsaw circa 1984. Maine is one of just four states in the country (the others are Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont) where billboard advertising is not allowed. Press Herald staff photo

Having spent a lot of time driving between Maine and Washington, D.C., over the past year (on the order of five or six trips), I have seen thousands of billboards. All are jarring to the senses, after you have become used to living in a state where their absence is just taken for granted.

But perhaps the most alarming aspect of billboards, in case you have not been out of state recently, is that many are being converted to high-intensity LED lighted signs that act similar to giant TV screens flashing ads at you on a rotating basis. They are distracting to drivers, causing more accidents to occur in their vicinity than on other stretches of road. They are fatal to migrating birds, which depend on dark skies at night to navigate. And they are huge energy hogs, some studies showing that just one LED billboard has the annual electricity consumption of 30 homes.

So what is to make of this unique bond between the four states of Alaska, Hawaii Maine and Vermont? What makes them kindred spirits in distinct ways? Writers often cite factors such as each state’s great natural beauty and “brands” that rely on independence, simplicity and good values.

I think there may be something else at work here. Perhaps citizens of these states see themselves as being apart from the broader mainstream of American commerce, greed and drive toward self-aggrandizement and entitlement. Shunning billboard that light up with bright intensity day and night, dutifully bagging returnables and often donating those nickels back to charitable causes are all meaningful ways to say that life is different here.

Maine became the most moved-to state during the pandemic, partly because people could work remotely, but also because Maine was seen as a safer and saner community. To be sure, there was some nastiness directed toward folks who headed here and kept out-of-state plates on their cars. But it was relatively minor and early in the pandemic when there was still not a lot known about virus transmission, vaccination protection and common-sense precautions.

Maine will be asked again in November to affirm these kindred spirit values that have been well honed over the past 50 years. Hopefully we will make the right choices.

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