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Legislature may pull plug on SLC's e-billboard crackdown

Published January 26, 2012 10:03 am

State vs. city • Lawmakers pushing bills that would tie Salt Lake City's hands.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Two state lawmakers have resurrected the battle over billboards and, if they succeed, Salt Lake City's attempt to restrict electronic signs could be over in a flash.

The similar measures were introduced Wednesday by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville. They would prohibit any city or county from enacting punitive billboard ordinances, and they would prevent local officials from banning the conversion of traditional billboards into e-signs.

SB115 and HB87 also would require cities and counties to launch eminent-domain proceedings when challenging the signs. If a billboard company prevailed in court, the local government would have to pay its legal fees.

"It's a fundamental right to advertise your business," Niederhauser said, "and it's important to commerce."

Mayor Ralph Becker's proposal — which would ban animated business signs outright and bar e-billboards from gateway streets, rooftops, historic districts and within 600 feet of neighborhoods — goes "too far," according to Niederhauser.

"When you head down that road," the state lawmaker said, "there's going to be a bill in the Legislature to address it. The sign industry has come to me, and I agree with them."

Brown's version goes further. It would restrict a city from requiring that a billboard company forfeit an existing sign when upgrading to an e-version, as Becker wants.

Salt Lake City leaders said they still are reviewing the legal ramifications of the retaliatory bills, and were hesitant to comment.

"Clearly, it's a response to the current effort to instill some regulations on billboards in the city," said Becker spokesman Art Raymond. "It's another example of the state exerting power over local control, which we have ongoing concern about."

The city's latest tangle with the billboard industry twisted for 10 months before sign executives and business owners packed a Jan. 3 public hearing to label Becker's proposal an anti-business overreach.

City leaders argue state laws have been systematically strengthened to make billboards one of the best-protected and least-taxed land uses in Utah. The mayor maintains his crackdown is a compromise, which still allows e-signs that swap images every eight seconds in manufacturing zones and along large commercial corridors.

Campaign contributions and "in-kind" billboard advertising for industry-friendly politicians is deep and well-documented. Since 2008, Reagan Outdoor Advertising has given Brown $1,500 and Niederhauser $2,750, according to campaign finance disclosures. But after November's election, those connections now extend to City Hall.

City Council newcomer Kyle LaMalfa took a $1,300 in-kind donation from Reagan Outdoor Advertising, and fellow newcomer Charlie Luke was once a Reagan lobbyist.

Even so, the council punted its billboard vote until after the 45-day session ends, hoping not to antagonize the Legislature.

djensen@sltrib.com