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Letter: Don’t let legislators spoil Utah’s scenic byways with billboards

First Published      Last Updated Feb 27 2016 03:12 pm

Last summer I had the good fortune to travel around much of the great state of Utah by car. I was awed by the state's natural beauty and unique landscapes, most unlike any that I've seen elsewhere in our country. I was charmed by much of the built environment too, including the many small towns along the scenic roadways that we traveled. But I was also shocked and disappointed to see so much natural and manmade beauty spoiled by roadside billboards.

As the leader of Scenic America, I've long known that the billboard lobby holds great sway over Utah's elected officials and during my trip their influence was readily apparent along many of the otherwise beautiful roadways that I traveled. So I was all the more alarmed to learn of a bill now making its way through the Utah legislature that would allow for a wave of new billboards along the state's designated scenic byways.




House Bill 232 would open up Utah's eight National and 23 state-designated scenic byways to the kind of new billboard blight from which they are now protected. Current Utah law allows owners of property abutting a scenic byway to put billboards up on their privately held properties, as long as they are located in so-called designated "non-scenic" areas.

But current law also respects local control and provides for the local city, town and county governments to review the agreements between the landowners and billboard companies and to veto such agreements if local authorities believe it would compromise scenic vistas. HB232 would greatly reduce this local oversight and allow property owners to opt-out of the scenic byway protections essentially by just making the request.

The billboard industry argues that this kind of byway segmentation is justifiable because some parts of these roads are not "scenic" and therefore will not be diminished by new billboards. But these roads are designated not only because they are scenic but also because they tell a story, giving travelers an experience rich in the history and culture of an area. In nearly all cases billboards are not an intrinsic part of a byway's story, but only serve to detract from what is real and genuine about the place.

Continuity of the scenic byway experience is important for the traveler and by excluding sections of these roads we undermine the visitor's journey and undercut community efforts to improve the whole scenic byway.

Exempting parts of the road from designation is like tearing pages out of a book: it ruins the story.

Utah's scenic roads are not only a source of pride for residents, they are economic engines for the communities they traverse. A 2013 study found that Scenic Byway 12 generated $12.75 million annually for local economies. In the modern age, billboards are increasingly irrelevant to travelers and only benefit the handful of people who profit from their intrusions into the landscape.

Utah's state and National Scenic Byways are popular with travelers in part because they are largely protected from billboard blight. Now is the time for Utahns who care about the state's unique beauty and character to contact their legislators and ask that they protect the state's most unique roadways by rejecting HB232.

Mary Tracy is president of Scenic America, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit with a mission to preserve and enhance the visual character of the country.

 

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