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

Published: Friday, April 13 2012 5:00 p.m. MDT

"It's been my experience, regardless of campaign donations, that the Legislature usually … isn't going to ram something down somebody's throat when there's a lot of controversy over it," Niederhauser said.

"While (campaign donations and lobbyists) might help a little, what I've seen as a legislator is that the legislative process works 90 percent of the time in getting the parties together and working out compromise legislation," he said.

A nationwide dispute

The outdoor advertising industry's influence on lawmakers isn't limited to Utah.

Billboard companies are powerful players in state legislatures across the nation, said Max Ashburn, spokesman for Scenic America, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to "preserving and enhancing the visual character of America's communities and countrysides."

"In the states where there are a lot of billboards, which is about two-thirds of them, the billboard industry is entrenched in state houses, and they have been for years," Ashburn said. "That's where they prefer to do their regulating because they have a lot of lobbyists and long-term friends in the state houses."

When such battles are fought at city hall, billboard companies tend to lose, he said, "because most people don't like billboards."

"That's why they like to make regulations in the back halls of state houses where they have their friends who they've donated money and billboard space to," Ashburn said.

Local ordinances regulating electronic billboards — and state lawmakers' attempts to overrule them — are topics of debate all over the country, he said.

Four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont — have longstanding bans on any kind of billboard, and Montana began prohibiting all electronic billboards in 2009.

Large cities that have banned electronic billboards in recent years include Houston, Kansas City, Mo., San Francisco and St. Louis. In Los Angeles, no new digital billboards are allowed, and there's an effort under way to force removal of the 101 standing there because the legality of their construction is in dispute.

In the past two years, three states where lawmakers passed legislation to override local regulations on electronic billboards were overturned by governors' vetoes. None of the states — Arizona, Missouri and South Dakota — had enough votes to override the governors' rulings.

'Not all business is good'

Mayor Becker's somewhat adversarial history with the outdoor advertising industry dates back more than 20 years, when he served on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission.

Becker was chairman of the commission in 1993, the year it advanced a plan to cap the number of billboards at their current levels and remove them from historic and residential districts.

Becker spoke at City Council meetings on behalf of the Planning Commission's action. Though he hadn't taken the lead on the proposed ordinance, Becker was a vocal advocate of the plan.

"It was fought vigorously, particularly by Reagan," he said.

William Reagan, then-president of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, touted the findings of a Dan Jones & Associates poll commissioned by the company that indicated 86 percent of city residents at that time didn't consider billboards a problem.

The City Council ended up siding with the Planning Commission and approved the ordinance by a 5-2 vote.

"It infuriated the Reagan folks," the mayor recalled. "I think they thought they were going to be successful in overturning the Planning Commission at City Council, and they weren't."

After the meeting, Becker said, things got ugly.

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