Good for business or bad for scenery? Salt Lake City renews battle with billboard industry

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 5:57 p.m. MDT

In January, following more than a year of study and debate, the City Council put in place a temporary measure that prevents billboards from being converted to electronic signs anywhere in the city other than freeways and major highways.

And even then, outdoor advertising companies have to take down a billboard somewhere else to convert an existing sign to digital — a two-for-one deal the outdoor advertising industry calls unfair and some city leaders say is too lenient.

Neither side is satisfied with the ordinance, but a decision had to be made, city leaders said, before the state Legislature stepped in.

"We knew they have a tendency to get involved in these issues," the mayor said.

Becker has had a front-row seat for government battles against billboards for nearly two decades. Unlike the majority of those previous conflicts, the outdoor advertising industry didn't triumph at the state Capitol during the most recent legislative session.

"Until this year, they've basically gotten anything they've wanted," Becker said.

In the coming months, the spotlight at the City-County Building is expected to shift back to electronic billboards as officials work to strike a balance between the mayor's ban-all-billboards way of thinking and the outdoor advertising industry's right to grow its business.

And no matter what is decided, both sides expect the Utah Legislature to have something to say about it.

Good for business

Salt Lake City leaders' opposition to billboards makes no sense to Jeffrey S. Young, senior vice president of Young Electric Sign Co.

Billboards, he says, are good for business.

"We just don't understand why cities would want to place any restrictions on them at all," Young said outside his office on Foothill Drive.

Armed with survey results that say most Utahns have no problems with billboards, Young confidently states his position that it's just a "small group of planners" and "environmental groups" who want to "regulate, limit and restrict" the outdoor advertising industry.

"It still remains a mystery to us as to why this small group of individuals who, from our perspective, don't represent the interests of the whole community would be putting restrictions in place at this time," he said.

The study Young cites was conducted nearly a decade ago by Kenneth Foster, an adjunct associate professor of communications at the University of Utah. It compiles the mailed responses of 1,165 people who live along the Wasatch Front, the study states, to "determine public perceptions of media and advertising issues in the community."

"The conclusion was that (billboards were) just not that big of a blip on (the public's) radar," Foster said.

According to the study, 89 percent of respondents would not "advise government officials to ban or limit billboards." But questions in the survey — such as, "What is more of an issue in your community: unsightly vacant lots or billboards?" — seem to steer respondents toward a more favorable opinion of billboards.

"If I would have said an unsightly billboard versus an unsightly vacant lot, the results would have come out differently, of course," he said. "But would that be a fair question?"

Foster says city planners essentially chose the terminology by comparing billboards to "unsightly vacant lots and buildings."

"If I bent it slightly toward the billboard industry, it's because (billboards) were being compared to these places — that they were as bad as unsightly lots and ugly buildings," he said.

Foster said the outdoor advertising industry didn't commission the study, though he did disclose that he has worked for more than 20 years as a consultant for Reagan.

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