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What are the rules for erecting roadside memorials in Whatcom County?

The family of Jerrad D. Ennen has maintained his roadside memorial for nearly 20 years. The Shuksan Middle School student was just 15 years old when he died May 1998, after he lost control of his motorcycle on wet pavement and slid into an oncoming car in the 1200 block of Marine Drive near Smith Gardens.
The family of Jerrad D. Ennen has maintained his roadside memorial for nearly 20 years. The Shuksan Middle School student was just 15 years old when he died May 1998, after he lost control of his motorcycle on wet pavement and slid into an oncoming car in the 1200 block of Marine Drive near Smith Gardens. krelyea@bhamherald.com

What are the rules when it comes to putting up a roadside memorial for a loved one?

It depends on which agency is responsible for the road, or sidewalk as the case may be.

In general, the City of Bellingham encourages people to put memorials on private property.

People also can donate permanent markers – bench, plaque or tree – for installation in Bellingham parks to honor a loved one. The city allows markers within the public right-of-way for people killed in DUI crashes as well.

The city doesn’t prohibit temporary memorials, flowers for example, from being placed in the public right-of-way.

“Our crews are sensitive to the needs of families during the grieving process and will attempt to allow temporary tasteful memorials in good repair to remain for a reasonable period of time,” said Eric Johnston, assistant director of Public Works for Operations for the city.

“Memorials in disrepair or those impairing safe and reasonable use of sidewalks, shoulders, roadways or otherwise creating a safety hazard will need to be removed,” Johnston added.

Whatcom County will create signs in memory of someone – with entreaties such as “don’t drink and drive” or “stay alert” – for a fee.

Outside that program, the county usually doesn’t police other roadside memorials. That’s because it doesn’t own the land that county roads are built on but the right to build a public transportation system.

So when memorials are erected along the side of county roads, they’re likely on private property.

Provided the memorial isn’t in front of a fire hydrant or a traffic hazard, then the county will leave it alone because it can’t legally do otherwise, according to Joe Rutan, Whatcom County engineer.

Rules for what are known as “spontaneous memorials” alongside state roads differ.

“The spontaneous memorials are not allowed on state right of way due to safety concerns. Not only is it dangerous to have people on the side of the road placing or maintaining flowers or other items, it’s also possible the items could be knocked over and even scattered into the lane of traffic, creating a hazard. They also can be a distraction to passing drivers,” said Barbara LaBoe, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“That said, we also are sensitive to families and friends in mourning, so they may not be removed immediately but eventually will be cleared,” LaBoe added.

To accommodate those who wish to honor their loved ones, the state does allow the public to buy memorial signs.

They read “Please Don’t Drink And Drive,” “Please Drive Safely,” “Please Watch for Pedestrians,” and “Please Don’t Text and Drive.” They also display the victim’s name.

There are about 350 such signs statewide, LaBoe said, and another 12 to 15 are added each year.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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