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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
A digital billboard is on display on 600 South in Salt Lake City on Dec. 23, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — Avenues resident Randy Larsen feels bombarded with advertising.

"Every place I go I run into ads," he said Thursday. And the prospect of billboards going high-tech and invading neighborhoods doesn't excite him at all.

"These electronic billboards, you can't ignore them. They catch you're attention and there's so much going on in the city with people and cars and bikes, they're a just another distraction," Larsen said. "I don't like them."

Outdoor advertising companies are aware of that sentiment.

"We know not everybody loves billboards. We got that," said Jeff Young, vice president of Young Electric Sign Co.

But, he said, electronic billboards are different. Studies show people like them and that they're not unsafe, he said during a House Transportation Committee meeting Thursday.

Electronic billboards are at the center of a debate over state versus local control.

Utah lawmakers are considering legislation to allow outdoor advertisers to convert their current signs to electronic ones. Cities and counties say regulation of billboards should be left to them. While municipalities concede the state has jurisdiction over interstates, they say surface streets belong to them.

Also, there are questions about how a brightly lit a 14-foot by 48-foot billboard impacts a neighborhood.

Transportation committee members wrestled with those issues while discussing HB87.

"It's really an uncomfortable situation because we really come down on the side of local control but we have to balance that with private property rights," said Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton.

The committee unanimously voted to advance to the bill to the House floor with the understanding that its sponsor, Rep. Mel Brown, R-Coalville, would work with the outdoor advertising industry and the Utah League of Cities and Towns to find some agreement.

"There will be negotiations continuing. Whether this is a final product or not depends on if those negotiations lead to any solutions," Brown said.

HB87 would allow outdoor advertisers to put electronic messages on their billboards under certain criteria, including brightness standards, a curfew, intervals between messages and distance from homes. The specifics of some of those provisions are still being worked out.

"We're not asking for new signs," said Michael Wardle, of Young Electric Sign Co. "We just want to be able to modernize our existing signs."

Salt Lake City has been working on an ordinance for more than a year to establish regulations for the conversion of existing electronic signs. In April, the City Council unanimously supported a moratorium that has kept any new electronic billboards from going up.

HB57 would prohibit Utah cities and counties from enacting or enforcing restrictions on billboard owners other than by eminent domain. The bill also states that municipalities may not use eminent domain to prevent a billboard from being upgraded to an electronic sign.

A nearly identical bill, SB136 sponsored by Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, is making its way through the Senate. He said the major sticking point is jurisdiction over surface streets.

"We see that there needs to be some protection" for outdoor advertisers, he said. "We also see there needs to be some local control."

Utah League of Cities and Towns representative Jodi Hoffman told the committee that local governments should regulate surface streets. She said she was surprised to learn HB87 does not contain provisions various stakeholders had agreed on.

"We just thought we were further along in getting consensus than we were," she said.

West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson said the bill is too broad. It applies standards that might not be applicable in every city, she said. Also, she said a state law removes residents' opportunity to have a say on billboards in their communities.

Dewey Reagan, president of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, argued for uniform state standards. The bill, he said, would impose brightness and distance restrictions to keep electronic signs from being a nuisance in neighborhoods.

The billboard advertising lobby is one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the largest billboard company in Utah, regularly contributes to political campaigns. In 2011, the company gave nearly $89,000 to state and local candidates, including $2,000 to Niederhauser and $500 to Brown.

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