Bill that would allow any billboard in the state to go digital advances through Senate committee

Opponents argue the proposal would erode local control and say the bright, flashing digital billboards are a blight on Utah’s scenic landscapes.

Utah cities and counties that prohibit digital billboards could see those regulations rendered moot under a new bill that received favorable recommendation from a Senate committee on Tuesday.

SB61, which has the backing of the state’s powerful billboard lobby, would allow the owner of any billboard in Utah to upgrade it to a flashing electronic format, regardless of whether a local government’s regulations prohibit that.

It’s an effort that Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton and the bill’s sponsor, says would increase “equity” in advertising between billboards and on-premises signs, which are allowed to utilize digital formats in some areas where billboards are not.

“Local political subdivisions were and are allowing many of these on premise boards to exist in spaces in their communities, but they’re not allowing the off premise advertising to exist in that same space,” he told the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Tuesday. “That seems unfair to me.”

He and other proponents argue that signs are good for local businesses and note that they are sometimes also used for the “social good,” like displaying Amber Alerts or advertising philanthropic endeavors.

But several groups and individuals spoke against the bill Tuesday, arguing that it would erode local control and that the bright, flashing digital billboards are a distraction to drivers and a blight on the state’s scenic landscapes.

Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said he sees the proposal as less about equity and more about “additional special treatment and special rights” for billboard companies.

He said the 248 cities and towns the league represents are also concerned about the consequences of the bill on neighborhoods close to billboards that could become electronic. The legislation does allow for curfews on sign operations in some instances, but Diehl said it doesn’t do enough to provide local municipalities with tools to mitigate impacts and preserve quality of life.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, raised a similar concern, noting that he’d recently helped some constituents dim a bright electronic advertisement on Redwood Road and Bangerter that was shining into their homes.

“If you drive Highland Drive or you drive Wasatch [Boulevard], if you drive 700 East or even Fort Union, you’ll see some of these billboards are located really close to residential neighborhoods,” he said. “I’m really personally very concerned about the idea that we would authorize a bill that allows zero to no protection for residential areas.”

McCay ultimately voted in favor of the bill with the hope that Sandall would make some amendments but said his vote is not “unqualified” and that he’ll vote against it on the Senate floor if his concerns are not ultimately addressed.

Scott Howell, a former Utah legislator, argued that there will be opponents who want to get rid of billboards no matter what but said he saw Sandall’s proposal a reasonable effort to drive economic development for businesses and local communities.

And he said the technology exists to mitigate any impacts on residential areas.

“No one wants to turn any community into a Las Vegas,” Howell said. “But I’ll tell you, the billboards that Sen. Sandall was talking about, the comparison is like a landline in your house versus an iPhone 12 that you have. The technology is there to turn them off, turn them on and have the ability to dumb them down and make them so they’re not bright.”

Both Sandall and Reagan Outdoor Advertising President Dewey Reagan said they would be willing to address the local control concerns raised by the League of Cities and Towns, the Utah Association of Counties and other advocates on Tuesday.

Pay to play?

In addition to worries about local control, several public commenters also raised concerns about the power of the state’s billboard lobby, which has for years been one of the biggest special interest donors to Utah politicians.

Kate Kopischke, who leads the anti-billboard group Scenic Utah along with her husband, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said she’s heard opposition to the bill from communities around the state, “and it’s people who are sick of the proliferation of billboards.”

“They have a strong perception, we hear this over and over and over again, that billboard companies pay to play and that lawmakers are indifferent to their needs and to their private property rights,” she added.

(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.”

Frank Cumberland, who spoke during public comment, raised a similar concern, arguing that the bill was “not so much a matter of fairness as it is an effort for the powerful billboard lobby to show off its muscle and throw its weight around.”

“But this time, I believe it’s gone too far,” he said.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune analysis of campaign finance donations found that Reagan Outdoor Advertising, one of the largest billboard companies in the state, ranked as the No. 6 individual donor to state legislators last year. The company gave a combined total of $49,741 to 41 separate elected officials.

The company also invested upward of $148,000 in last year’s election, including donating more than $40,000 to Gov. Spencer Cox.

Reagan told The Tribune at the time of that analysis that the company “supports the political process in hope of working with the individuals that establish regulations” about its industry, and to gain access to policymakers to discuss concerns.

“Supporting the political process enables Reagan to participate in how these problems are solved,” he said. “Candidates who are willing to serve in these complicated times, in an effort to confront the complex problems facing society currently, need both public and private support in order to do so.”

Several lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill Tuesday pushed back on assertions of pay to play ahead of their vote.

Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, argued that such accusations can “denigrate the integrity” of lawmakers and the legislative process. And Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she planned to support the bill despite her concerns because the cities she represents are confident Sandall will work with them to find solutions.

“I don’t represent pay to play. I represent Kearns, West Valley and Taylorsville, and they’re talking to me right now,” she said.

The bill passed 6-2 — with Sen. Todd Weiler and Sen. Jerry Stevenson voting in opposition — and now moves to the full Senate for further consideration.

Correction: Feb. 4, 10:22 a.m. >> The billboard bill was heard in a Senate committee. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated otherwise.