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Doug Dansie: Digital billboards are the signs of the industry’s dreams

Case for state law protecting electronic billboards ignores needs of other businesses and local government.

An electronic billboard, sponsored by the Democratic Coalition, shown Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019 in Nicholasville, Ky. McConnell, who is up for re-election in 2020 in a state where Trump tends to be more popular than he is, sees no other choice than to stand back and let the president who took the country into the shutdown decide how he wants to get out of it. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

Billboard company executives’ recent commentary in The Salt Lake Tribune declaring “Electronic billboards are the signs of our times” misrepresented the issues surrounding digital billboards in Utah.

The two industry-backed bills they extolled, which failed in the 2021 Utah Legislature but are likely to return in 2022, had little to do with the virtues of digital technology or “the modernization of billboards” and everything to do with their goal of gaining special privilege to digitize their entire billboard inventory in Utah.

Under the guise of “fairness,” industry wants state lawmakers to strip local governments of their authority to regulate electronic off-premises signs (billboards) that are controlled by a handful of owners, but not on-premises (storefront) signs, which are imperative to the success of all businesses, large and small.

The bills sought to force conversion of every billboard in every Utah community to digital and prohibit municipalities from adopting or enforcing digital billboard ordinances. One bill even included an additional $350,000 penalty in the event industry prevailed in a lawsuit against a city, while simultaneously indemnifying billboard companies even in a loss.

Besides mischaracterizing the bills as a benign attempt to move Utah into the digital age, industry paints opponents of the legislation as anti-technology, anti-billboard radicals on the wrong side of history. They argue that electronic billboards should be exempt from local ordinances, even though the very purpose of such ordinances is to ensure signs are regulated in nuanced and fair ways that reflect the character of a community. Many communities, for example, don’t allow digital signs of any sort in neighborhood business or historic districts, but accept them in industrial or large commercial areas.

The locally elected leaders who adopt and enforce these ordinances include business owners, educators, farmers and others who devote time, energy and resources to guiding their towns and cities in ways they think best represent their values and standards. Most community leaders do not inherently oppose digital technology, or even the presence of billboards. What they do oppose is being forced, by law, to comply with industry’s self-serving demands under the threat of legal action and exorbitant costs to taxpayers.

Billboard executives portray themselves as regular business owners working hard to meet their bottom line and do their part to advance social causes such as Amber Alerts. They claim to be champions of small, local businesses who are being victimized by big-city regulations. These arguments ring hollow.

Current state statutes strongly favor the interests of deep-pocketed billboard companies over other Utah businesses and communities. Many local businesses cannot afford the high price of billboard ad space; digital or otherwise (and Amber Alerts reach most residents via mass text message.)

Industry says it contributes to our tax base. What they fail to note is that under state law, billboards are classified as personal property (like boats or cars), rather than real property (like homes or buildings); which means a billboard’s taxable value is amortized out in less than 20 years. Yet boards are guaranteed a permanence not provided to other land uses, enabling them to claim little to no tax value, while the revenue stream continues to the industry for many more years.

Billboards yield so little taxable property value that many county assessors don’t bother to track the number or value of signs. Furthermore, billboards suppress tax generation by occupying land that could be used for higher and better purposes.

Billboard companies arguably already get more special treatment than any other business in Utah. Yet near every year, as with this year’s legislation, they aggressively pursue more protections and benefits at the expense of everyone else. Unless communities and the public convince lawmakers otherwise, industry is likely to attempt to get its way again in 2022.

Doug Dansie, Salt Lake City, worked as a land-use planner from 1980 to 2019

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