Battling the ‘visual blight’ of billboards, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker launches Scenic Utah

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Mayor Ralph Becker and his wife, Kate Kopischke, seen here on 600 South in Salt Lake City on Oct. 26, 2018, have started a local affiliate of Scenic America to press for more regulation and less proliferation of billboards. “Here we have the most prominent gateway into our city coming in on 6th South," Becker said. "It is lined all the way into the city with billboards. It detracts from what would otherwise be a beautiful gateway into Salt Lake.” He calls the towering rows of signs an "embarrassing blight.”

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who sees billboards as a scourge on Utah’s natural landscapes and urban skylines, has launched a group dedicated to fighting their proliferation and providing a counterbalance to an industry that has amassed political clout in the state.

The fledgling Scenic Utah, an affiliate of Scenic America, is led by Becker and his wife, Kate Kopischke.

“I’ve been a really strong admirer of what Scenic America has done around the country to promote the great scenic qualities," said Becker, a professional planner. “A group of us started to make an effort more than 10 years ago to initiate Scenic Utah but we didn’t get it off the ground until now. Our objective is to promote the beautiful scenic qualities of our state.

“I have long been involved in trying to control the visual blight from billboards in this city and in the area," Becker told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Indeed, for the state’s sign industry, led by Reagan Outdoor Advertising (ROA), Becker is a familiar foe. He fought pro-billboard legislation first as a member of the Utah House from 1997 to 2007 and then for two terms as Salt Lake City mayor.

ROA did what it could to help end Becker’s bid for a third term in 2015 by creating a political action committee to get around city election contribution limits and run an anybody-but-Becker campaign. Signs for all of his challengers, even minor ones with no money of their own, were beneficiaries of the many billboards that popped up all over the city.

Becker’s campaign called it the worst kind of special-interest interference in an election.

Jackie Biskupski, who ended up winning the election, had more than a dozen of these Reagan-sponsored billboards backing her run. She declined to comment on the issue at the time.

Another warrior in the billboard regulation fights of the last couple of decades is Gary Crane, city attorney for Layton.

While the billboard companies are usually willing to work with cities, he said, they do tend to run to the Legislature to skirt local regulation when disagreements break out.

“They are very protective of the billboards they have and are always looking for new locations,” Crane said of ROA. “Because of their size and influence, they have made large inroads into pre-empting local authority to regulate billboards.”

Reagan’s considerable political clout is no doubt helped by its status as one of the state’s biggest campaign contributors. In the last general election, it donated $173,000 and kicked in another $81,000 last year during municipal elections. In 2016, it was No. 3 on the list of most generous special interests giving to Utah lawmakers, chipping in $79,630 to 75 legislators.

ROA has long argued that the signs are good not only for the company but also for the many businesses that advertise on them.

“Outdoor advertising provides the local businesses of Utah an extremely affordable way to distribute information about their products and services,” Dewey Reagan, general manager of ROA, told The Tribune.

“This communication between local businesses and the public serves as a catalyst for economic development and the creation of jobs across the state of Utah."

Reagan pointed out that the company also provides many nonprofit and charitable groups an opportunity to get out their messages on topics such as suicide prevention and community events at no cost.

Billboards are strategically placed in commercial areas throughout Utah, and meticulously follow regulations, Reagan said. “Outdoor advertising can coexist with, and remain out of Utah’s truly scenic areas due to the industry’s good judgment and existing governmental regulations.”

Becker disagrees with how well ROA and others have stayed out of scenic areas.

“If you look just in the Salt Lake area,” the former mayor said, "here we have the most prominent gateway into our city coming in on 6th South. It is lined all the way into the city with billboards. It detracts from what would otherwise be a beautiful gateway into Salt Lake.”

He calls the towering rows of signs an "embarrassing blight.”

Similar disruptions of the natural landscape can be seen on roads into some of the most beautiful places in the state, including on the way to Moab and St. George, Becker said. He also pointed out that, “There are people who can barely see out their windows because there are billboards sitting right outside their home.”

Another particular Becker concern is electronic billboards, which he asserts have become a huge problem due to their being “incredibly distracting and annoying, but also a major public safety issue.”

Studies have shown that electronic billboards do have an effect on driver attention. The signs attract more and longer gazes than traditional billboards, but whether billboards cause traffic safety issues remains in dispute.

“Electronic billboards are generally much brighter than regular billboards and may be seen from much longer distances,” Crane said. “If properly separated and with the brightness controlled, they have their places."

But he believes the decision about whether or where they should be allowed properly lies with local government.

Reagan defends electronic billboards as cost-effective and safe.

“The federal government, through the federal highway department, completed extensive traffic safety tests prior to permitting digital outdoor advertising displays nationally," he said. "Digital outdoor advertising displays have been deemed safe by the U.S. government.”

Becker said Scenic Utah aims to lobby for tighter billboard regulation at state and city levels.

“Most of us, as we travel around, get pretty accepting of what our views are. And so, oftentimes, billboards have been up for so long that people don’t even notice them," he said. "When people pay attention, they realize that billboards create an incredible intrusion on what would otherwise be a beautiful view.”