State Rep. Chris Lee is considering introducing legislation that would fine and confiscate the planes of aerial advertisers in response to a company that has been toting banners through the sky along the windward and North Shore coasts of Oahu in violation of city law.

Meanwhile, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is trying to ground the plane and has vowed to prosecute the company. 

Aerial Banners North has been brazen about its launch into the Hawaii market. The company out of Hillsborough, New Jersey, has been buzzing around in a small, yellow plane hauling banners since Memorial Day, to the dismay of Caldwell and The Outdoor Circle, a local environmental group that has fought outdoor advertising for decades.

Honolulu has banned aerial advertising since 1978 and its authority to do so has been upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals twice in the past decade.

Aerial banner ad flies over Waimanalo Beach.

Aerial Banners North flies over Bellows Beach on the Fourth of July.

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

However, an attorney from Aerial Banners North has said it has the backing of the Federal Aviation Administration — something the agency denies. During the Fourth of July weekend, the company stepped up its visibility in Oahu skies, despite protests from the mayor.

“They are playing games with our Constitution, with our natural beauty.” — Mayor Kirk Caldwell, referring to Aerial Banners North

On Friday, it toted a banner along the windward coast reading, “ABN Loves America.” The Honolulu Police Department cited the pilot when he landed in Kalaeloa for violating the city law against aerial banners, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and three months in jail.

But that didn’t stop the company. The plane was flying Sunday with a banner that read: “Can’t we get along?”

Officials at Aerial Banners North did not respond to phone and email messages. But the company’s Facebook page has become a forum for discussion between the company and local residents. 

On July 1, the company wrote: “We understand that change is unsettling, and we are making every effort to be considerate as we begin to roll out our service in Hawaii. Aerial banners is fundamentally about freedom of speech.”

The company said it is ready and willing to fly a range of banners for paying costumers, including “Will You Marry Me” signs, political campaign slogans and commercial advertisements. 

The company’s attempts to assuage local protest don’t seem to be working, however — at least not on Facebook. 

“Beat it haoles!!” Keenan Shigematsu wrote on the company’s Facebook “wall.”

“Hit the road Jack,” wrote Denby Fawcett, a longtime local journalist and author who also contributes to Civil Beat. “Silly companies like yours are unwanted in Hawaii.”

Caldwell said during a Monday press conference that the city would continue to cite the company and push for the strongest punishment possible. The company faces an Aug. 5 court date for the Friday citation.

“In a way, don’t you find it to be a very flagrant, in your face kind of statement,” said Caldwell in regards to the Sunday banner. “They are playing games with our Constitution, with our natural beauty, something that all of us in Hawaii appreciate equally with almost any other part of our Constitution. And yet this company seems like, ‘We don’t care. We just absolutely don’t care.’ Well, they are going to find out we do care.”

Lee told Civil Beat that he’s considering introducing bills when the Legislature convenes in January that would bolster the city’s enforcement efforts.

Potential legislation would include state fines, including daily fines for operators who continue to knowingly violate the law against aerial banners. Planes could also be confiscated. Lee’s also considering introducing a bill that would hold the pilot, and not just the company, personally liable for violating the law. 

State law generally prohibits outdoor advertising, while leaving some discretion to the counties to enforce their own ordinances. All Hawaii counties have banned sky advertising.

“The bottom line is we want there to be meaningful repercussions and the ability to enforce laws when there are companies coming in from the mainland clearly trying to skirt our local laws designed to protect the beauty of our state and the economy that relies on it,” said Lee. 

Company officials latched onto statements made by FAA spokesman Ian Gregor last week that seemed to suggest that federal law trumped state and city laws and that Aerial Banners North was free to operate in Hawaii skies.

Caldwell sent a letter to Gregor on Thursday asking him to clarify his statements and requesting that the FAA revoke the waiver certificate that it issued to the company.

Gregor told Civil Beat on Monday that his statements had been misconstrued and noted that the courts had upheld Hawaii’s laws against aerial advertising.

Last week, a published report gave the impression that the Federal Aviation Administration asserted that its statutes, governing the use of the national airspace, preempted Honolulu’s ordinance governing advertising,” he said by email. “These reports did not accurately reflect the FAA’s position.  The application of these ordinances has been twice upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.”

The FAA waiver certificate clearly states that it “does not waive any state law or local ordinance.”

“Should the proposed operations conflict with any state law or local ordinance, or require permission of local authorities or property owners, it is the applicant’s responsibility to resolve the matter,” the waiver states.

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