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Utah cities balk as House panel greenlights e-billboards

Published February 17, 2012 6:34 am

Utah Legislature • Municipal leaders fear loss of local control.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A measure that would give Utah's powerful sign industry unprecedented power to convert highway and surface-street signs to electronic billboards cleared a House committee Thursday.

The unanimous vote puts cities concerned about losing local billboard control on their heels.

"This might be a very good bill if you're talking about the freeways," complained West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson. "But it applies a standard unilaterally that might not be applicable in every city in every community. This bill, I think, is too broad."

A nearly identical bill has passed a Senate committee. Both come in the wake of Salt Lake City's effort to regulate e-signs by banning animation and restricting them near neighborhoods.

A substitute HB87, by Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, would strip regulatory control from cities and counties, allowing the sign industry to make e-billboard conversions along highways and on surface streets. It also would tilt the eminent domain debate — cities and sign companies regularly wrangle over the value of billboards — in the industry's favor. That would make it harder for cities to condemn properties that have billboards.

Executives from Reagan Outdoor Advertising and Young Electric Sign Co. insist their request is responsible. They point to an evening curfew for e-signs within 450 feet of homes and a self-imposed brightness standard that would dim the signs to levels deemed appropriate in residential areas.

"At this time in our economy, as we are trying to get our feet back on the ground, why would we take away an opportunity for our local businesses to advertise this way?" asked Jeff Young, senior vice president at YESCO.

Michael Wardle, YESCO's government-relations manager, notes the industry has morphed from wood to steel to wrapped vinyl to digital. "This is simply an evolution of a product," he said. "We're not asking for new signs. We just want to be able to modernize our existing signs."

Industry leaders point to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act — and a 2007 federal law applying sign standards — as evidence that billboard regulation should fall under state, not local, control.

Cities have been hypocritical, said Reagan Outdoor President Dewey Reagan, by trying to ban or cap private e-billboards while erecting their own. He pointed to such signs at West Valley City's Maverik Center and Salt Lake City's Sorenson Unity Center. And Reagan suggested it is a double standard for cities to allow full animation and scrolling text on some business signs, but forbid it on billboards.

"The industry," he said, "doesn't think it's fair for cities to both referee and play in the advertising game."

Multiple committee members said they were sensitive to the local-control question but voted in favor anyway, saying they hope to see dialogue continue — and the bill perhaps amended — before a final vote.

Yet Jodi Hoffman, of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said the sweeping billboard bill arrived "much to our surprise" in the midst of healthy negotiations with the sign industry.

"Along the interstate, that's a given — a city can be trumped," she said about the allowance of e-billboards. But across Utah's surface streets? "We still think that ought to be a matter of local control."

Brown conceded billboard regulation should be a matter of local control. But he argued cities too often trample the rights of businesses and pass ordinances that hamper the sign industry's ability to "compete."

"The responsibility we have as legislators," he said, "is to protect a viable private enterprise."

Brown and a long slate of state lawmakers regularly accept campaign contributions along with free or discounted billboard advertising from the sign industry. Since 2008, Reagan Outdoor Advertising alone has given $375,000 to political campaigns. Brown told the committee he used a billboard during his last election, which was "highly effective."

djensen@sltrib.com