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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
A digital billboard is on display on 600 South Street in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 23, 2011.
We have one company that owns a lot (of billboards) and several other companies that only have three, four or five. If you have to remove seven to get one, (some companies would) basically have to wipe out their entire inventory to convert one.

SALT LAKE CITY — City leaders are hoping to reduce the number of billboards in Utah's capital city, particularly in residential areas, by allowing more electric versions of the large roadside signs.

Confused? Hang in there. It will all make sense soon.

The Salt Lake City Council unanimously supported a nine-month moratorium in April that has prevented any new electronic billboards from going up. The goal was to give city officials time to figure out if, where and how they would be allowed in the city.

The moratorium also put on hold an all-out ban on electronic billboards proposed by Mayor Ralph Becker. But that expires Jan. 13, meaning the City Council must decide before then how to handle the trend of existing roadside advertising being converted into electronic signs with changing images and flashing lights.

The proposed solution: For every existing billboard converted to an electronic sign, another billboard must be taken down elsewhere in the city.

"It's essentially a 2-for-1 swap," said Wilf Sommerkorn, city planning director. "You'd covert the existing billboard, plus take down another billboard in order to get an electronic billboard in the city."

The end result, says city planner Doug Dansie, is a reduction in the number of billboards in the city.

"(The proposed ordinance) is written so if you do convert to electronic, in most cases you have to remove billboards," Dansie said.

The only time a sign company wouldn't have to give up a billboard to make an electronic conversion would be if an existing billboard were removed from a residential area. In that case, the billboard could be moved and converted without any extra requirements, according to the ordinance.

City officials hope that encourages companies to move billboards out of areas where Becker and other city leaders say they don't belong. They have cited aesthetics and safety concerns as reasons for regulating electronic billboards in Salt Lake City.

The City Council has scheduled a public hearing on the proposed ordinance regulating electronic billboards for Jan. 3 at the Salt Lake City-County Building, 451 S. State. The council likely will vote on the ordinance Jan. 10 — three days before the moratorium expires.

Luke Garrott, who will be sworn in Jan. 3 for a second term on the City Council, said he doesn't believe the ordinance goes far enough. If the goal is to reduce the number of billboards, electronic or traditional, companies should have to give up much more than one extra billboard per electronic conversion.

"I'm not comfortable with that," Garrott said. "I think it's much too lenient. I would prefer something like 7-to-1."

Sommerkorn said city planners started out considering a 7-to-1 or 8-to-1 conversion rate, a ratio used "in a number of communities," he said. The rationale for that ratio is that electronic billboards could display between seven and eight messages per minute — using the proposed standard of allowing images to change no faster than every eight seconds.

Following discussions with sign company representatives, other members of the public and the Planning Commission, city planners settled on the 2-for-1 ratio, Summerkorn said.

Requiring seven or eight billboards to be surrendered for every electronic conversion would hurt the smaller sign companies, Dansie said.

"We have one company that owns a lot (of billboards) and several other companies that only have three, four or five," he said. "If you have to remove seven to get one, (some companies would) basically have to wipe out their entire inventory to convert one."

The proposed ordinance also would further restrict where electronic billboards would be allowed to operate. Essentially, city leaders want to keep the electronic signs on freeways and highways — I-15, I-80, I-215, state Route 201, Mountain View Corridor and Bangerter Highway.

Billboards would be prohibited on streets designated as boulevards and city entries — including 400 South, 500 South and 600 South.

City officials estimate there are roughly 145 billboards in Salt Lake City, including six that have been converted to electronic signs. Two of those electronic signs are on 600 South, which would make them illegal under the proposed ordinance.

If the ordinance is approved by the City Council, billboards converted to electronic signs before the moratorium would not be subject to the new standards. However, there is a dispute about the legality of the electronic conversion on the two 600 South signs, and it's possible they'll be removed.

The proposed ordinance also puts in place standards for other electronic signs, including those used at businesses around the city. The ordinance sets standards for size and restates the city's prohibition of all animation on signs.

Email: jpage@desnews.com