Alameda County: I-580 political signs spark free speech fight

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Activist Michael Shaw poses for a photograph at his public self-storage facility in Castro Valley, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Shaw says that billboards he erected there this summer are constitutionally protected free speech against a government conspiracy to abolish private property and crowd Americans into high-density "pack and stack" housing in a car-less society. Alameda County calls the billboards "an assault on the visual senses" of motorists on neighboring Interstate 580. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

Activist Michael Shaw pos­es for a pho­to­graph at his pub­lic self-stor­age facil­i­ty in Cas­tro Val­ley, Calif., Wednes­day, Oct. 8, 2014. Shaw says that bill­boards he erect­ed there this sum­mer are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly pro­tect­ed free speech against a gov­ern­ment con­spir­a­cy to abol­ish pri­vate prop­er­ty and crowd Amer­i­cans into high-den­si­ty “pack and stack” hous­ing in a car-less soci­ety. Alame­da Coun­ty calls the bill­boards “an assault on the visu­al sens­es” of motorists on neigh­bor­ing Inter­state 580. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

CASTRO VALLEY — Prop­er­ty rights activist Michael Shaw says the free­way bill­boards he erect­ed this sum­mer are a warn­ing against a glob­al gov­ern­ment plot to abol­ish pri­vate prop­er­ty and crowd Amer­i­cans into dense hous­ing.

Alame­da Coun­ty says the unau­tho­rized signs are “an assault on (the) visu­al sens­es” of Inter­state 580 com­muters. It wants them removed.

The two sides are now locked in a legal bat­tle. So far, Shaw is win­ning.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Charles Brey­er has ordered the coun­ty to leave the bill­boards alone as the dis­pute pro­ceeds to a civ­il tri­al.

I’m just sort of an old-fash­ioned Amer­i­can who thinks rights are inher­ent to the nature of human beings and not sub­ject to (the county’s) approval,” Shaw said recent­ly as he demon­strat­ed the three two-sided bill­boards he put up on his prop­er­ty sev­er­al months ago.

Traffic passes one of three large billboards adjacent to Dublin Canyon Road at the Lockaway public self-storage facility in Castro Valley, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014. Owner Michael Shaw says that billboards he erected there this summer are constitutionally protected free speech against a government conspiracy to abolish private property and crowd Americans into high-density "pack and stack" housing in a car-less society. Alameda County calls the billboards "an assault on the visual senses" of motorists on neighboring Interstate 580. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

Traf­fic pass­es one of three large bill­boards adja­cent to Dublin Canyon Road at the Lock­away pub­lic self-stor­age facil­i­ty in Cas­tro Val­ley, Calif., Wednes­day, Oct. 8, 2014. Own­er Michael Shaw says that bill­boards he erect­ed there this sum­mer are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly pro­tect­ed free speech against a gov­ern­ment con­spir­a­cy to abol­ish pri­vate prop­er­ty and crowd Amer­i­cans into high-den­si­ty “pack and stack” hous­ing in a car-less soci­ety. Alame­da Coun­ty calls the bill­boards “an assault on the visu­al sens­es” of motorists on neigh­bor­ing Inter­state 580. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

The signs rise above the 8-acre prop­er­ty of Lock­away Stor­age, a boat and RV stor­age lot nudged in the canyon that con­nects Dublin with Cas­tro Val­ley.

Fronting the cost to erect the signs was a Neva­da bill­board com­pa­ny, Desert Out­door Adver­tis­ing Inc., noto­ri­ous for spark­ing First Amend­ment fights with lib­er­al West Coast cities and coun­ties. But it was the landown­er, Shaw, who wrote and designed the mes­sages. The busi­ness­man and for­mer lawyer acknowl­edges they befud­dle many com­muters.

The sub­ject of the signs is the restruc­tur­ing of Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment, some­thing I think most peo­ple don’t know much about,” he said.

One mes­sage declares in yel­low cap­i­tal let­ters on a pur­ple back­ground: “STACK AND PACK PROJECTS & GRIDLOCK; RELOCATION OF PEOPLE: URBAN TO RURAL; CITIES AND COUNTIES DISSOLVE INTOREGIONS.’”

The words are a cri­tique of Plan Bay Area, a long-range plan to con­cen­trate more of the region’s new hous­ing in urban hubs near tran­sit.

It took a lot of time to get the most com­pli­cat­ed issue I’ve ever heard of onto a bill­board,” Shaw said. “I’m sure most peo­ple who dri­ve by, say, ‘What the hell is that?’”

He hopes they pay atten­tion.

Anoth­er mes­sage warns that “ABAG and ICLEI are using the ‘envi­ron­ment’ to impose bogus agen­das.”

ABAG stands for the Asso­ci­a­tion of Bay Area Gov­ern­ments, a region­al plan­ning agency that passed Plan Bay Area last year. ICLEI is an inter­na­tion­al asso­ci­a­tion of more than 1,000 local gov­ern­ments pro­mot­ing envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty. They are both unelect­ed bod­ies that Shaw believes have an out­size influ­ence on local land-use deci­sions and whose agen­das he says are direct­ed by a 1991 Unit­ed Nations envi­ron­ment con­fer­ence.

 ‘Sovi­et’ style

It’s a new style of gov­ern­ment, it’s Sovi­et in nature, and it’s intend­ed to get rid of the his­toric sys­tem of gov­ern­ment in Cal­i­for­nia, the city and coun­ty gov­ern­ments,” Shaw said.

Which is not to say that Shaw is a fan of coun­ty gov­ern­ments. Espe­cial­ly not San­ta Cruz Coun­ty, where he lives, and Alame­da Coun­ty, where he spent more than a decade fight­ing to build and defend his self-stor­age busi­ness on Dublin Canyon Road.

Shaw sees his bill­boards as a prin­ci­pled stand for free­dom and the right to broad­cast any polit­i­cal or com­mer­cial mes­sage he choos­es. They are also a form of revenge.

When gov­ern­ment steps on you, you don’t ever walk away whole,” he said.

Alame­da Coun­ty vot­ers in 2000 passed an urban growth bound­ary that sought to pre­serve open space and lim­it devel­op­ment in cer­tain unin­cor­po­rat­ed areas of the coun­ty, includ­ing the spot on an I-580 frontage road where Shaw had a per­mit to build a self-stor­age facil­i­ty. After he made a big invest­ment in the vacant canyon land — a for­mer ille­gal dump­ing and unau­tho­rized motocross site — coun­ty plan­ners told him he could not devel­op.

He fought back, begin­ning 12 years of lit­i­ga­tion that end­ed late last year when Alame­da Coun­ty was forced to pay a $2 mil­lion set­tle­ment over Shaw’s lost wages and attor­ney fees.

The signs are meant to tar­get two offi­cials in par­tic­u­lar: Alame­da Coun­ty Super­vi­sors Nate Miley and Scott Hag­ger­ty. The signs and Shaw’s prop­er­ty sit in Miley’s dis­trict. Miley declined to com­ment this week because of the ongo­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

Hag­ger­ty, a Dublin res­i­dent who rep­re­sents the Tri-Val­ley, must see them when­ev­er he com­mutes to his office in Oak­land, the seat of Alame­da Coun­ty gov­ern­ment. Hag­ger­ty is also for­mer chair­man of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Trans­porta­tion Com­mis­sion, a region­al body that Shaw and oth­er activists con­sid­er com­plic­it in the tran­sit-ori­ent­ed push.

Alame­da Coun­ty argues in court papers that restrict­ing bill­boards is a “rea­son­able exer­cise of its zon­ing pow­ers” and has noth­ing to do with the con­tent of the mes­sages. It is sim­ple, the coun­ty says: a 2008 ordi­nance bans new bill­boards in unin­cor­po­rat­ed areas, and all new struc­tures — bill­boards includ­ed — must go through the nor­mal plan­ning process that Shaw ignored.

If Shaw wants to express his mes­sage, he can “read­i­ly rent space” else­where, the coun­ty said. Shaw scoffed at that sug­ges­tion, not­ing that most per­mit­ted bill­boards are owned by a hand­ful of big com­pa­nies.

They wouldn’t let me, first­ly,” Shaw said. “The New World Order pro­tects the New World Order.”