Billboard: City or private control?

Feb 20 2012 - 6:33am

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Are electronic billboards with bright, rotating messages in your neighborhood a future trend?

Some local officials think they are if current legislation involving land-use control and locations of billboards becomes law.

Legislation in the House and Senate pits billboard companies against local municipalities and counties. It centers on who controls billboards on private property and where they may be located.

A showdown on land rights is a key component of SB 136, which would allow billboard companies to upgrade existing billboards to electronic billboards. The bill also would set parameters to relocate billboards within a community.

The bill would trump local community standards or guidelines for billboards and would require that a given municipality invoke eminent domain when terminating a billboard owner's billboard or rights.

A talking-points memo distributed by Utah League of Cities and Towns suggests the legislation overturns years of precedence.

"Land use regulation in Utah has always been a matter reserved for local control.

SB 136 proposes to undermine literally decades of land use law," the memo said.

Billboard company representatives disagree, suggesting the rights of a private property owner are the issue. Jeff Young, senior vice president of Young Electric Sign Company, says the bill allows companies to convert existing signs to an electronic format. He adds that if a community decides to take a sign down, the owner of the sign should be fairly compensated.

Young said the legislation would not increase the number of existing billboards in the state.

Sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, the measure has already cleared a Senate committee. The bill and a substitute measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, are waiting for consideration by the Senate. A similar measure is being sponsored in the House, HB 87. That bill is waiting review by the House.

Farmington City Manager Dave Millheim, in attacking the measure, suggested consideration of the measure is being influenced by heavy lobbying and political donations.

"This bill is an affront to local control. It's lobbying gone amok. It's not good public policy," Millheim said.

Millheim worries the issue may lead eventually to billboard companies being able to relocate farther into communities, with the only preventive option left to the municipality being to invoke eminent domain. He does not argue against having billboards on freeways, but encroachment onto surface streets is another matter.

The billboard lobby is among the most powerful on the Hill. The state's largest billboard company, Reagan Outdoor Advertising, contributed $111,563 to Utah political campaigns in 2010 and $450,000 to Utah candidates over a 10-year period, according to the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

The Lt. Governor's Office for Public Disclosures shows Reagan contributed $82,913 to candidates in 2011, including $5,000 to House Speaker Rebecca Lockhart, $2,000 to Sen. Niederhauser and $10,000 to Gov. Gary Herbert. A number of Top of Utah candidates received $750 or $500 contributions from the company.

The issue of local control over billboards is hardly new. ULCT officials claim they were working on a compromise during the 2011 interim session and say SB 136 is a direct assault on those negotiations. They claim there are ongoing negotiations involving HB 87 as well.

Young said the League's idea of compromise was to have six signs taken down for each electronic billboard in a community. YESCO typically runs a rotation of six advertisements on one electronic billboard. Young said in one case a community offered compensation valued at approximately $200 for a sign that generates thousands of dollars in revenue.

"If a city decides they want to condemn our signs, these signs are worth much more than that ($200). We pay our fair share of taxes in conformance. We're paying our fair share," Young said.

Young said the city does not have control over a state or federal road. He believes the legislation on the Hill is using the right medium to clarify legal issues on billboards.

Besides control, the issue of transitioning from paper billboards to electronic signs brings up other issues, including questions about how the lighting impacts neighborhoods.

Young said studies show electronic billboards are only slightly higher than surrounding areas. He said the new billboards are not brighter than billboards with a lighted sign during the evening.

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