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Billboard battle heats up as company files lawsuit against Murray

Published: Wednesday, May 23 2012 9:43 p.m. MDT

Reagan Outdoor Advertising is suing Murray City over the right to convert a billboard at 5900 South and I-15, photographed Wednesday, May 23, 2012, to a digital sign. The lawsuit was filed earlier this month.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Cities along the Wasatch Front are joining Salt Lake City's battle over digital billboards in hopes of regulating if, when and where the electronic signs should be allowed.

And now the billboard industry is fighting back.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Utah's largest billboard company, has filed a lawsuit against Murray over the city's refusal to allow the company to add a digital face to an existing roadside sign.

The lawsuit, filed May 8 in 3rd District Court and served on the city last week, alleges that Murray city officials refused to accept Reagan's application for a digital upgrade to its billboard on the east side of I-15 near 5900 South.

"The application, the fee and all the materials to be submitted with the application were turned away by the city without any comment or written decision," the lawsuit states.

Dewey Reagan, Reagan's president and general manager, said company officials met with Murray's city attorney following the denial and were told the application wasn't considered "because they felt the billboard presented a traffic hazard."

Reagan said he told city officials he was "discouraged to hear that," considering that digital signs along the freeway have been allowed for businesses in several locations in Murray, including the Utah Humane Society and the Flower Patch.

"Our goal is to be able to upgrade the sign (at 5900 South) the same way businesses along that stretch of road have been allowed to do so," he said.

The lawsuit asks that Murray be required to accept and approve Reagan's application to upgrade the sign to digital. It also asks the court to rule that the Murray city code that prevents such electronic conversions conflicts with state law and is invalid.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising is also seeking at least $300,000 for revenue lost as the result of the application refusal.

Murray city attorney Frank Nakamura confirmed that the city had been served with the lawsuit but said city policy prohibits him from commenting on the lawsuit.

Murray has had an ordinance in place since 2008 that prohibits "electronic message centers" — digital billboards — from locating anywhere other than as part of a local business, such as the Humane Society and Flower Patch.

But the sign in question has been permitted at that location for more than a decade, according to the lawsuit, meaning "all rights associated with the construction, maintenance and upgrading of the sign were 'grandfathered' under the original permit."

Because Murray wouldn't even consider the application, "we felt that our only option was to file suit," Reagan said.

A handful of cities along the Wasatch Front recently imposed moratoriums on billboards being converted to digital signs while they revamp ordinances to regulate them.

Salt Lake City pulled the plug on electronic billboards in April 2011 to give city officials time to figure out what to do with them. Six billboards in Utah's capital city were converted to digital before the City Council took action.

Today, 19 applications from Reagan to upgrade existing billboards to electronic are being held up while Salt Lake City officials work to come up with an ordinance to regulate where or how they can operate.

The City Council is expected to resume work on that ordinance after its budget discussions wrap up in June.

This month, Cottonwood Heights, Provo and Layton all enacted moratoriums on digital billboard conversions.

"It's not that we are against electronic billboards," said Cottonwood Heights Mayor Kelvyn Cullimore. "We just think they need to be looked at thoroughly before they're allowed to go up."

The Cottonwood Heights City Council on Tuesday adopted a temporary zoning ordinance to prevent the signs from going up during the next six months.

"We're going to take the next six months to review how appropriate our current ordinance is regarding electronic signs and whether it needs to be updated or not," Cullimore said.

Wanting to regulate the billboards is part of the reason Cottonwood Heights incorporated as a city in 2005, the mayor said.

"That was one of the first ordinances we passed, that only existing billboards would be allowed and there wouldn't be any additional billboards," he said.

Cottonwood Heights has about 20 billboards in the city, most of them along Wasatch and Fort Union boulevards and Highland Drive.

Cullimore said city officials have reached out to the outdoor advertising industry to get  input on potential regulations.

Reagan said he has received similar invitations from the other cities that have enacted moratoriums.

"We hope to work with these municipalities to create digital ordinances that will meet the needs of the citizenry and the business community," he said.

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com

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