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Robert Gehrke: Billboard companies want Utah’s Legislature to steamroll cities, so do these other special interests

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Over the course of decades, there is likely not another business interest that works so hard to ingratiate itself with legislators and then wields that influence to advance its own interests as the billboard industry.

Every election cycle, billboard companies are eager to donate billboard space to legislators looking to boost their name recognition. One company alone, Reagan Outdoor Advertising, gave nearly $75,000 to political campaigns.

And every session, the industry is back at the Legislature, asking lawmakers to stomp all over local governments that try to actually represent their constituents and put even minor restrictions on the type, size, number and location of the signs — as at least 45 local governments have done.

Surprise! This year, the industry has two bills that would eviscerate the power of local elected officials.

One is SB61, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, which would let billboard companies convert any existing billboard from a old-school static billboard to a new, blinking digital one — and there is nothing the local governments or residents could do about it, aside from limiting the brightness in narrow circumstances between midnight and 6 a.m.

The other, SB144, sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, denies local leaders from restricting construction and remodeling of billboards, and gives billboard companies the right to go to court and sue a local government that violates the law.

Here’s an example that actually happened that this bill would prohibit: A while back, a landowner in downtown Salt Lake City had a lease with a billboard company that this landowner didn’t want to renew, but didn’t want to lose the money. So the city, which didn’t want the billboard, agreed to pay the owner not to renew the lease.

If SB144 had been law, the city would’ve found itself in court, on the hook for $350,000 in damages plus attorneys fees.

Kate Kopischke, with Scenic Utah, has been contacting local leaders all over the state, organizing opposition to the billboard bills, and “there’s not one city or town that has come back and said, ‘We kinda like these. We don’t want to control what our cities and towns can do.’”

But this special treatment, while galling, isn’t unique. It’s just one of more than a dozen bills that steamroll local governments and make a mockery of the notion — so often espoused around the Capitol — of “local control.”

For example, HB98 would allow a developer to “opt out” of city building inspections and to hire his or her own inspectors to sign off on the dwelling. It also prohibits cities from putting any conditions on interior or exterior design of a home or landscaping. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Paul Ray, is (it turns out) the president of the Northern Utah Homebuilders Association.

Then there’s HB76, sponsored by Rep. Cory Malloy, designed to smack down Salt Lake County over an attempt to require background checks on firearm sales held at gun shows at the county-owned Mountain America Expo Center. The bill doesn’t just limit the county, but the private company the county hired to operate the facility. If the bill passes, cities couldn’t prohibit firearms at sporting events, concerts or other events held at city- or county-owned parks or facilities.

SB130, sponsored by Sandall, seeks to direct how and under what circumstances counties can limit the location of “confined animal feeding operations.” The bill originated after residents in Millard County mobilized to oppose a 30,800-hog farm near Hinckley and commissioners in Beaver County moved to restrict a hog farm there. Sandall — who previously owned such an operation— wants to require counties to prepare a map identifying suitable locations and each county would have to offer at least one suitable location (unless population and land ownership make it impossible).

Or there’s HB82, which prohibits local governments from restricting “accessory dwelling units” — things like mother-in-law apartments — except in narrow circumstances. The goal is to facilitate more affordable housing, which we need as a state, but it comes at the expense of local leaders responding to their constituents.

That’s the larger point: Local cities and counties don’t always get the policy decisions right and there may need to be times the state, with good reason, steps in.

But for as often as we’ve had to hear Utah lawmakers complain about the federal government imposing its will on the state and repeating their mantra (attributed, correctly or not, to Thomas Jefferson) that “the government closest to the people serves the people best,” you might think they would be a little more aware of when they walk all over those officials best situated to be aware of and responsive to their constituents.

Unfortunately, they aren’t, especially when those local decisions clash with the well-funded and well-connected special interests — whether it be billboard companies or hog farms or homebuilders.

In those instances, deeply held philosophical beliefs go out the window and it becomes less local control and more about controlling the locals.

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