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

"I'll never forget it," he said during a recent interview in his office at the Salt Lake City-County Building. "That is the only time in my career as a public figure that I have been accosted — literally accosted — by anyone when I came out of a City Council meeting."

Reagan representatives, Becker said, "were poking their fingers in my chest."

"They were screaming at me," he said. "I just walked away from it and left. It was not a pleasant experience. That kind of stuff does not leave a very good taste in my mouth."

Keith Christensen, then a member of the Salt Lake City Council, surprised his colleagues with his support for capping the number of billboards in the city. Christensen was then and continues to be an advocate for local business.

But a vote for billboards isn't necessary a vote for business, he said.

"My personal opinion is that business is good, but not all business is good," Christensen said during a recent interview. "I am not a fan of billboards."

Christensen said his opinion of the outdoor advertising industry took a negative turn following his dealings with a local billboard company that refused to remove one of its signs from his property more than 20 years ago.

"We had terminated the leases on the property," he recalled, "but the billboard company that owned those signs refused to take them down. That leaves the property owner in a difficult spot."

Folk stories circulating at the City-County Building include descriptions of Christensen ultimately wielding a chainsaw and removing the billboard himself.

Today, he chuckles at the tale, but doesn't offer any indications about its truthfulness.

"It's a lot easier for property owners to sign leases and get a little bit of revenue for a property that may not be fully utilized at a given time," Christensen said. "It's a lot more difficult to get those billboards removed when property owners want to do something different with that property."

Unfair advantage?

The volume of state code pertaining to the outdoor advertising industry is daunting and continues to grow nearly every near.

Opponents say the laws give billboard companies an unfair advantage over any other industry in the state.

Outdoor advertising officials counter that the only reason state lawmakers have to get involved is because municipalities and environmental groups have placed a bull's-eye on their backs. Salt Lake City's restrictions on electronic billboards, they say, are the latest example of that.

"We're not trying to promulgate and build a bunch of new billboards," said Young, YESCO's senior vice president. "That's never been what it's been about. We haven't added new structures in Salt Lake City for decades. We're just trying to keep what we have, to be allowed to improve our business."

Becker points to several sections of state law that he says provides special treatment to the outdoor advertising industry.

The "most egregious" example of that, he said, deals with the way billboards are treated for purposes of valuation.

Under state law, billboards are considered personal property, not real property, meaning they aren't subject to property taxes, even though they're attached to property.

"(Billboard companies) don't pay taxes like every other property owner in the state," Becker said. "They're exempt."

The mayor's biggest beef with that law, he said, is that it doesn't apply to the billboard when a property owner — or the government — wants to remove it. In that case, the billboard is treated as real property, which increases its price tag.

On top of that, outdoor advertisers include the value of each sign as part of its network of billboards, driving up the cost to remove a billboard even further.

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