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It’s Complicated (Ok, you’ve heard that before, but maybe not for this topic – billboards.)

April 15, 2021 by admin

This article does not necessarily reflect the attitudes or opinions of APAUT or the APAUT Executive Committee.

This year’s Legislative Session was memorable for a lot of reasons. One reason was the Outdoor Advertising Industry, was unsuccessful in getting another State Law change that would have allowed any existing billboard to be changed over into an electronic billboard. Thanks to the League, Scenic Utah, numerous cities, and the APA Legislative Committee for winning a battle up there on the Hill.  BUT, the war is not over!

Maybe billboards would be ok in some places, but my local example of 33rd South with its’ myriad of billboards in all shapes and sizes (including the 660 square footers), would be even more of a visual nightmare, with lighting projecting into neighborhoods and our not so dark skies getting increasingly brighter.

What’s a planner to do?  First let’s be abundantly aware of the “contributions” that the billboard companies make to our local official’s campaigns as well as potential legislators.  The conversation starts with us being many steps behind – but that is a reality, face it. It also is fraught with ethical issues for your community leadership and you.  Can you even raise this issue without getting yourself in hot water?  Very awkward for you to suggest changes, when you know your bosses are getting significant campaign contributions.  You might be able to avoid that, by fostering the opportunity to let your planning commissioners carry the torch – let them propose needed changes!

Second, there are legal arguments that the Outdoor Industry is making that could be a problem. Content based discrimination.  Is the only distinction between on-premise and off-premise signs, what is being advertised? To determine that, do you have to read the sign?  If so, then that distinction we make may be in trouble. Yet, I am not sure if that trouble, keeping that distinction, is helpful or not. No distinction between on and off-premise signs could actually provide more control of their proliferation. Billboards are really just off-site pole signs.

Third, should we consider some universal changes to our sign ordinances?  Many communities set pole sign size by the frontage that the use (or uses) occupy and therefore the number allowed on a property.  Many communities set a size limit. Many have setback requirements based on height, and a limit for on-premise heights (but offer a different height for billboards).  If you allow billboards, why do you treat them differently? Why shouldn’t an off-premise sign have the same regulations as an on-premise pole sign?  What is the reason that we have traditionally made that distinction?

Fourth, what about the electronic, changing copy issue?  Should we be eliminating all electronic signs because billboards might be successful someday in getting “equal” treatment?  Pretty sure a few other sign companies would have fits with that proposal! Electronic signs are most likely the way of the future.  Maybe there is some room for allowing electronic signs, if they meet certain standards – like a large property size, setbacks, or a certain amount of frontage.  Yet, the billboard company’s proposal, I think, was that if you allow electronic signs anywhere in your community then they get to transform their existing boards and any new ones too.

Let’s not wait and hope that we can prevail again next year, when we know that the track record for the Outdoor Sign Industry has been so successful in the past.  They have THE MOST supportive and extensive State Laws in their pocket already. Changing copy billboards have got to be incredibly profitable for them in the long run and profit is an amazing motivator.

Now is the time to take a second look at what you have in your sign ordinance. The content-based court case provides a means of starting this discussion. Consult with your City/County/Town Attorney.  Does that distinction between on and off premise need to stay?  Should it stay in light of recent court cases? Are all your signs headed toward the electronic version? This does not need to be a huge comprehensive overhaul.  Consider just dropping the separate billboard distinction, re-evaluate your pole signs for locations, numbers, sizes, and get the changes made. Even if you don’t allow billboards now, that distinction may not hold up in the future, if the content-based issue is raised.

Doing nothing, isn’t a good option – this issue will be back and more issues will be raised at the Legislature – you can count on that!


John Janson AICP

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