Split Millcreek City Council adopts new ordinance regulating the state’s powerful billboard industry

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Millcreek City Council Millcreek City on Monday, July 17, 2017. A split Millcreek City Council voted 3-2 Monday to adopt sweeping changes to the way the municipality regulates outdoor advertisements.

Millcreek • A split Millcreek City Council voted 3-2 Monday to go up against the state’s powerful billboard lobby with the adoption of sweeping changes to the way the municipality regulates outdoor advertisements, though the new standards are still more permissive than codes in many other communities.

The dissenting votes came from Mayor Jeff Silvestrini and Councilwoman Bev Uipi — both of whom had disclosed past support from sign companies during their campaigns for public office but did not recuse themselves from the debate.

During a more than two-hour discussion on the issue, council members heard from nearly a dozen people who spoke in favor of the new rules and urged them to limit the visual clutter that blocks their mountain views.

“I don’t see any real benefit billboards provide to residents and our quality of life,” Millcreek resident Roberta Walker said during public comment period, adding that she doesn’t think the signs "support our vibrancy, walkability or sense of place.”

Because state law allows a sign owner to relocate a billboard into any commercial, industrial or manufacturing zone in the city within a mile of its previous location, Silvestrini worried that it would not meaningfully produce the changes residents desire and would instead produce lawsuits or preemptive state action.

“If that’s all we’re doing here is sending a message that Millcreek doesn’t like billboards, I know that Millcreek doesn’t like billboards,” he said, advocating for more time before a vote on the issue. “But I think we should use our power to craft an ordinance that allows us to move the billboards that Millcreek residents want us to move.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini during the Millcreek City Council meeting, Monday, July 10, 2017.

Planning Commission Vice Chairman Tom Stephens acknowledged that the ordinance “can be violated by the billboard companies at will” but argued it would send an important message about the community’s values.

“Yes, the billboard company can ignore the ordinance; it can ignore the community standards,” he said. “But the fact is, you, as a City Council, and we, as planning commissioners … can tell the public that, you know, when members of the public complain about a billboard in their neighborhood, that we did everything we could.”

City staff pitched the proposed changes as a way to “modernize” Millcreek’s billboard code, make the city’s standards more consistent with those in similar communities and promote economic development, according to a report detailing the changes.

The new rules would, among other things, limit billboards in a commercial zone that’s generally located near residential areas, cap most signs at 300 square feet, reduce the maximum height of a billboard to 32 feet in most cases, and prohibit lighting that’s directly visible from a ground-level vantage point.

Dewey Reagan, president and general manager of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, expressed concern about some of the particulars in the ordinance, noting that many billboards in the city would become immediately nonconforming but would likely remain in place.

The best way to address concerns, he argued, is not with an ordinance but through dialogue between the municipality and the company to move billboards the community finds problematic.

“While certainly the industry wouldn’t be excited about taking [billboards] down," he said, “we are interested in working with the city and have demonstrated historically in many municipalities that we’re willing to do that.”

Millcreek is home to 51 billboards, many of them located on 3300 South, 3900 South and 900 East, and the new ordinance will not remove those billboards. City code already capped the combined square footage of billboards, meaning the only way a new one could be constructed in Millcreek was if a previous sign was removed.

During the public hearing Monday, several residents raised concerns about conflicts of interest among those who have been the beneficiaries of free advertising from outdoor sign companies during their campaigns for public office.

Both Silvestrini, an attorney, and Uipi disclosed those conflicts ahead of the public hearing. But the mayor said he didn’t think his history with Reagan, which includes legal work for the company in the past decade, would cloud his judgment or influence his vote.

“I can separate myself from any influence from the sign companies,” he said.

Campaign finance disclosures show Silvestrini received $12,213 in contributions from Reagan during his race for a second term as mayor in 2019. His wife, Leslie Van Frank, has also done legal work for Reagan and has worked as a registered lobbyist for the company since December 2012, according to the state lobbyist database.

Silvestrini and Uipi both expressed a desire for more dialogue with Reagan and other outdoor advertisers and urged their colleagues to delay further consideration of the new ordinance until a later date. But their substitute motion to move the vote to March 9 failed 2-3.

“I’m not opposed to continuing dialogues” with the billboard industry, Councilwoman Cheri Jackson said after that vote. “But I don’t think that that is precluded by the passage of an ordinance.”

The billboard industry, which has amassed vast political clout in the state, was a major player in the 2015 Salt Lake City mayoral race between Ralph Becker, who was running for reelection to the seat at the time, and former-Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

That fight emerged again in last year’s race for Salt Lake City mayor between state Sen. Luz Escamilla and now-Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Escamilla was one of several candidates to be the beneficiary of billboards from a political action committee linked to Reagan Outdoor Advertising, while Mendenhall said she had deliberately not taken donations from that group because she intended to “negotiate with the billboard industry.”

Mendenhall, who took office early last month, said in a statement Monday that the conversation on outdoor advertising “primarily focuses [on] how they intersect with the potential of our Grand Boulevards.”

“This is a multifaceted, many stakeholder endeavor," she added, “that will include conversations around billboards.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Billboards are stacked along the 600 South offramp from I-15 in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, March 13, 2018.