Patriotism or political statement?
Steve LeBard, in black shirt, and a group of about 50 people representing the Old Town Orcutt Revitalization Association, veterans groups and Orcutt residents gather at the Park-and-Ride lot by Highway 135 to protest the Caltrans decision to reject his idea of a monument for veterans. //Brian Bullock/Staff

When Steve LeBard served in Vietnam, he expressed his patriotism by painting some of the rockets he loaded onto helicopters red, white and blue.

So it’s no surprise that decades later, he’d volunteer to lead an effort to build the Old Town Orcutt Gateway Monument that would pay homage to American veterans.

LeBard announced Thursday that Caltrans doesn’t share his patriotism, and on March 15 it denied his application to erect the monument.

A group of about 50 people representing the Old Town Orcutt Revitalization Association, veterans groups and Orcutt residents gathered Thursday afternoon at the Park-and-Ride lot at the intersection of Highway 135 and Clark Avenue — the site proposed for the monument — to protest Caltrans’ decision.

“Pretty much outraged” was the reaction of almost everybody LeBard said he contacted about the denial.

The association applied to Caltrans to build a round concrete slab with a 30-foot diameter and a five-point star in the middle. At the end of each point will be a granite column with a bronze insignia representing the branches of the armed forces — the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard.

The design features a 60-foot flag pole at the center of the circle that will display a 12-by-18-foot American flag.

LeBard estimates the project to cost approximately $60,000, and said most of the effort so far has been donated. Berto van Veen Construction has provided the engineering, and the association has pledges for the cost of three of the five bronze insignias.

“What is offensive about that monument?” asked Jim Banakus, president of the American Legion Freedom Riders, Chapter 432, one of several veterans to attend Thursday’s protest. “I don’t know where we’re going with this country any more. This political correctness thing has gone way too far. There’s got to be some changes.”

LeBard said Caltrans indicated to him the flag is the heart of the denial. He said the monument including the flag pole is in compliance with the United States Flag Code and the California Streets and Highway code 670.5.

Caltrans disagrees. The denial apparently stems from post-9/11 actions when American flags and Afghanistan war protest signs were hung from freeway overpasses throughout the state. In response to the rash of protest signs, Caltrans removed all political signs along freeways, but left the flags flying.

Following a First Amendment-based lawsuit — Brown v. California Department of Transportation — both state and federal courts found that Caltrans needed to remove all political speech — including American flags — from the state’s highways.

In denying the OTORA application, Steve Senet, Caltrans District 5 Encroachment Permit Engineer, wrote: “To answer your question regarding the court’s decision in Brown v. California Department of Transportation pertaining to flying the American Flag in the State right of way, it was established that, ‘The display of the United States flag constituted expressive activity, within the meaning of the First Amendment.’

“The concern that we have in this situation is that, whether a flag hanging on a bridge, or a monument placed within a park and ride lot, we would be placed in a position of having to permit all forms of expression as encroachments in the right of way if we were to allow yours. As such, the department has determined that the state highway system is not a forum for public expression except as expressly allowed.”

Senet could not be reached for comment.

“At that point, I didn’t know what the hell Brown versus California was,” LeBard said. “When an American flag is flown on a pole, it’s a symbol of our country, it’s not political expression.”

 Caltrans seems to be the only agency against the proposal. LeBard worked with Santa Barbara County planning staff until they approved. He said county supervisors Steve Lavagnino and Joni Gray both approved. And all local veterans groups have shown support.

State Senator Tony Strickland, R-Thousand Oaks, is supporting the project by introducing it as SB 443, which would authorize OTORA to build the monument. If the bill passes, the association would be allowed to start construction next year.

“At this point, if we can get that bill through and passed, it seems like that’s where we should be focusing our efforts,” LeBard said. “What’s our other choice to change Caltrans’ policy?”

For more information about OTORA or the Gateway Monument, visit www.oldtownorcutt.com.

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