Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act to control and limit signs along the interstate and primary highways which allows the traveling public to enjoy the nation's scenic beauty.

The Montana Legislature also enacted laws consistent with the federal act. Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is responsible for enforcing these laws, and failure to do so could jeopardize millions of dollars in highway construction funds.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Highway Beautification Act into public law on October 22, 1965. The first section of the law sets forth program objectives. "The erection and maintenance of outdoor advertising signs, displays, and devices in areas adjacent to the Interstate and Primary highway system should be controlled in order to protect the public investment on such highways, and to promote the safety and recreation value of public travel, and to preserve natural beauty."

To comply with the Federal Highway Beatification Act (Title 23, United States Code), the Montana Legislature passed the Outdoor Advertising Act, effective June 21, 1971. The statutes are supplemented by administrative rules promulgated by the Highway (now Transportation) Commission. The administrative rules are contained in Sections 18.6.201 through 18.6.270, Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM).

The Department of Transportation has the responsibility for the regulation and control of outdoor advertising along the National Highway System (NHS) or the Primary Highway System, as those systems are defined in Section 60-2-125, MCA. The Department assigned the Right-of-Way Bureau the overall administration of the program with regard to developing and administering policies and procedures. Within the Right-of-Way Bureau, it is the responsibility of the Outdoor Advertising Coordinator to perform these functions. Activities including recommendation of permit issuance, surveillance and initiating the removal of unlawful signs.

The outdoor advertising program involves the regulation and control of the location, size, spacing, lighting and maintenance of signs and devices along the state's NHS system and remaining primary system not included in the NHS. The program involves:

  • The review, approval or rejection of sign permit applications.
  • Removal of lawfully erected signs which do not conform with established standards for location, spacing, size, lighting or other criteria, subject to availability of federal funds for such purposes.
  • The inventory of all affected routes to determine sign owners' compliance with regulations of the program.
  • The removal of any signs unlawfully erected or maintained.

Program Features

removing a billboard sign

The State of Montana agreed to provide "effective control" of outdoor advertising by establishing a sign permit system; maintenance of an inventory of all permitted signs, and periodic surveillance of the controlled routes to discover unlawful signs and monitor other signs as required by state law.

Two distinct enforcement impacts emanate from the "effective control" provisions:

  • The removal of unlawful signs;
  • The reasonable enforcement of land use control concepts that are applicable to nonconforming signs such as abandonment, destruction, and customary maintenance.

An unlawful sign is one which is erected and/or maintained in violation of the law. A sign is nonconforming if it was erected prior to the effective date of state law, but does not conform to the law's requirements. The term "grandfathered" sign is often used in relation to nonconforming signs.

Sign Permits

In order to inventory and control signs along the highway, permits are issued to the sign owner and a permit plate must be attached to the sign. The law requires MDT to charge both an application fee for the initial application and to assess a fee after the permit is issued. The initial application fee is non-refundable even if the permit can't be issued.

Application forms and fee schedules are available from the Right-of-Way Section OAC Contact. If your application is approved, a permit number and plate will be issued. After the initial three-year period, the permit may be renewed every three years thereafter without completing a new application. The department will notify the sign owner when the renewal fee is due.

Before the permit can be issued, we will carefully consider the application and inspect the proposed location to be sure the sign will meet all requirements. If the sign is located on land owned by someone other than the sign owner, the landowner's written permission is required. Also, some cities, towns and counties have local sign ordinances or regulations, so you will need to get written approval from the local zoning authority before the department can review the application.

Permits are not required for signs advertising the sale or lease of the property on which they are located or for a sign advertising the products or services provided on the property on which the sign is located.

For example: motel, restaurants, service stations or store signs do not need permits. These are called "on-premise" signs. It is important that you check for local government ordinances or regulations that may apply to on-premise signs. If you believe your sign is on-premise, you should call an OAC Contact person for confirmation.

Unpermitted signs are unlawful and must be removed. We will notify the sign owner and landowner to give them ample time (45 days) to remove the sign. If the sign is not removed, the department will remove it and the costs will be accessed to the sign owners and landowners.

Again, you will need to visit with OAC Contact to get an application for a sign permit. There are numerous details that must be considered and approved before issuing a permit for a sign.