Billboard corporations use money and influence to override your vote

  • An I-15 exit becomes a downtown street lined with billboards.

    Jeffrey Allred
  • A four-panel billboard occupies a vacant lot where neighbors want to create a park to honor a slain policeman.

    Jeffrey Allred
  • Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker overwhelmingly re-elected last November, leads the city's efforts against what he calls an "incredibly aggressive" billboard industry.

    Jeffrey Allred
  • Tucson's Speedway Boulevard in 1970, when it was named by Life Magazine "the ugliest street in America."

    Getty Images
  • In Los Angeles, Dennis Hathaway, who heads the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, says rich corporations have donated millions of dollars to politicians, including former city attorney Rocky Delgadillo, to try to weaken the city's billboard regulations.

    Rena Kosnett, L.A. Weekly
  • A Reagan Outdoor Advertising digital billboard changes its ads every few seconds as cars drive down 600 South, an I-15 exit that's a busy gateway to Salt Lake City.

    Jeffrey Allred

Salt Lake City, Utah
Driving around Salt Lake City on a pleasant day last June in a plain white city government car, Doug Dansie pauses at the corner of two streets, 1300 South and 300 East. This is a residential neighborhood where old trees tower over the houses. But there's no house on this particular corner lot. Instead, it's occupied by a billboard.

The billboard isn't a 10-story freeway giant or one of those garish cutting-edge electronic signs that constantly flash digital ads like imitation Las Vegas casinos. It's only about 25 feet tall, with four angled faces that advertise a "Gem Faire" for dealers and jewelers as well as a nonprofit group that helps Iraq War veterans.

Still, "it's inappropriate to have a billboard in a residential area," says Dansie, a senior land-use planner for the city with decades of experience, who's wearing a striped shirt with his sunglasses secured by a cord around his neck.

Beyond the question of whether a billboard should stand next to houses in the first place, some people resent this billboard for a different reason. For more than five years, neighborhood residents have been trying to create a park on this small lot to honor a police sergeant, Ronald L. Heaps, who was shot to death here in 1982. They've raised some cash, and the city has offered grant money, but they haven't been able to strike a deal with the billboard company, which owns the lot as well as the sign. Dansie puts it bluntly: "The billboard is holding up the park plan."

He drives on past other controversial billboards; there are many. Much larger signs emblazoned with hard-to-ignore ads for everything under the sun -- office-furniture blowouts, lingerie, colonoscopy doctors, Rio Tinto mining, and a fast-food chain with a playfully illiterate slogan -- Eat Mor Chikin -- dominate long stretches of I-15, the main corridor through the string of cities along the scenic Wasatch Mountain Front. Other billboards punctuate the metro area, even in the midst of an active downtown renewal effort.

Gigantic construction cranes are adding to the cluster of tasteful skyscrapers downtown, while pedestrians stroll amid trendy shops and bistros, light-rail stations, the impressive State Capitol complex and the Mormon Church's Temple Square. Dansie points out billboards on downtown lots where city planners would rather see new skyscrapers and hotels. Developers are interested, but first the billboards have to go, Dansie says. Railroad tracks, viaducts and other urban eyesores have already been swept away for the downtown renewal. But the billboards remain, because in Utah, billboard-friendly state laws make removing any billboard for any reason considerably more difficult than pulling teeth. Billboards, Dansie says, "are more protected than any other industry."

It's a pattern in many Western communities. For people who think government has a role in protecting viewsheds and aesthetics, billboards are like unsightly weeds popping up in the cracks of land-use regulations. Many cities, including Salt Lake, are trying to impose tougher regulations, either banning billboards altogether or instituting "cap-and-reduce" programs that limit the total number of signs and then reduce it over time. Understandably, the billboard companies generally oppose regulations, arguing that their property rights are being violated. The issue has sparked many court battles, and state legislatures have become another kind of battlefield. Billboard companies work hard to persuade legislatures to pass laws that override local regulations; in return, the companies donate to political campaigns and run ads for politicians on billboards.

Many industries and businesses struggle with regulations, of course. But the underlying issue seems especially clear for billboards. The battle isn't really about aesthetics, or whether billboards constitute an acceptable instrument of commerce. At its core, the issue concerns corporate power and its influence over all the forms of local democracy -- city and county governments and ballot measures passed by voters. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a former Grand Canyon National Park seasonal ranger with degrees in law and planning, says simply: "I've never liked billboards. It's an incredibly aggressive industry."

The first major attempt to rein in billboards occurred back in 1965, when their number was soaring nationwide because of a profitable technological advancement: ads printed on vinyl strips that could be quickly installed and switched out, instead of the old cumbersome paper and hand-painted ads. That year, Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act, which was championed by Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of President Lyndon Johnson. It sought to limit the spread of billboards along federally funded highways by pressuring the states to impose regulations on their sizes, lighting and spacing.

The landmark 1965 federal law has helped keep many of the West's rural highways from being overrun. Still, it was only "a partial victory," observed a leading business magazine, Fortune, 21 years later. "Environmentalists at first wanted to outlaw new signs along federal highways and phase out existing ones without compensating owners. So potent was the billboard lobby, however, that the Highway Beautification Act ... required the federal and state governments to pay" for any billboards they want to remove from the federally funded highways, as long as the billboards were legal when they were built. Since then, governments have had to pay billboard corporations many millions of dollars to retire some signs, using controversial estimations of the profit each would generate if left in place.

And as Fortune found, "Faster than the old signs have come down, the industry has put up new and bigger ones. Reason: The act allows billboards in commercial and industrial areas, a loophole that has been interpreted so loosely that signs can go up almost anywhere (along federally-funded highways)."

Four states -- Vermont, Maine, Alaska and Hawaii -- have banned billboards altogether, but most state governments are not so tough. That means it's mostly up to local governments to regulate billboards along many kinds of roads, whether or not the roads get federal funding.

Today, there are roughly a half-million billboards in the U.S., and billboard companies rake in $4 billion to $6 billion a year. Many businesses want to advertise on billboards. In the march of technology, traditional billboards have become much more substantial -- 60 feet to 125 feet tall and mounted on seemingly permanent steel poles -- and the development of electronic billboards that use digital light-emitting diodes is a spectacular breakthrough. A digital billboard typically flashes a series of ads for eight seconds each, and the companies reportedly make 12 to 17 times as much money on them as on traditional billboards. President George W. Bush's Federal Highway Administration, under pressure from the industry, decided in 2007 that digital billboards can be installed along federally funded highways as long as they comply with state and local regulations. About 2,000 digital billboards have been installed nationwide, and every day more are proposed -- that's the industry's main goal now.

Wayne L Hare
Wayne L Hare says:
Jan 25, 2012 09:24 AM
Well sure, Ray. But you gotta admit: All those bill boards along I-15 south of Salt Lake City - amongst the thousands of others along what may be the current ugliest road in America - that advertise an 800 number to call if one is addicted to pornography sure give a driver something to be curious about on an otherwise mind-boglingly boring drive!
Doug Smith
Doug Smith says:
Jan 25, 2012 11:03 AM
Billboards are a disgrace. I thought the South was the epicenter for the proliferation of these hideous monstrosities. I-75 between
 Chattanooga TN and Atlanta Georgia is an absolute disgrace. However, on a recent trip to Salt Lake City I was dumbfounded that suchglorious landscapes were permanently obscured by the reckless installations of massive billboards. I wish that a

young activist out there somewhere would organize a social media boycott of the companies that advertise on bill boards everywhere
but especially in the West where the vast landscapes do not deserve to have massive highway eye litter rising out of control spreading like weeds with no regard for size or scale.
The billboard explosion around Salt Lake City is a disgrace and Utah should be ashamed.
Jack Topel
Jack Topel says:
Jan 27, 2012 06:21 PM
Enjoyed the article, but had no idea that Rocky Delgadillo (photo caption p17)was Mayor! I'm sure that's news to Antonio Villaraigosa!
Paul & Betty Whiting
Paul & Betty Whiting says:
Jan 30, 2012 10:39 AM
Outstanding and much needed article. This is definitely an environmental issue especially "for people who care about the West". Some states are better than others. Between Billings, where I live, and Laurel, about 15 miles down the Interstate there are about 90 billboards. Driving along the same Interstate in Washington between the Idaho border and downtown Seattle, about 300 miles, I counted two, that's right, two billboards. Same thing crossing the border between Wyoming and Colorado. Billboards advertising hotels and so on in Denver are bunched up on the Wyoming side because Colorado has stricter laws.

Thank you, Ray!

Brent Lathrop
Brent Lathrop says:
Jan 31, 2012 02:47 PM
The assumption is that billboards influence the public to take whatever action the sign is exhibiting, from my experience the public doesn't pay much attention to signs anymore due in part to overkill. If companies want to through their advertising money into signage then let them go out of business by not buying their message.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Jan 31, 2012 03:31 PM
Dewey Reagon says "the Sierra Club or any other industry"! He doesn't get the difference between non-profit advocacy and money grubbing. And he's a hypocrite, wanting an asset to be taxed as personal property that has decades long ground leases clearly attached to the land—to such an extent that it impacts the property's value. What a selfish jerk.
Tom & Jane Meacham
Tom & Jane Meacham says:
Jan 31, 2012 04:12 PM
I feel really fortunate to live in one of four (?) states that have outright bans on billboards: Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont, and I understand one other (which one?). Despite an underhanded attempt to gut the Alaska ban a few years ago, the citizens rose up with a resounding NO.
Call me a worrier, but will the Citizens United case, which found corporations to be "persons" with free-speech rights to influence political campaigns, spill over into the outdoor advertising arena, with claims that corporations' "free speech rights" are unconstitutionally infringed by bans or controls on roadside advertising? I certainly hope not, but there is no guarantee...
Ray Ring
Ray Ring says:
Feb 01, 2012 10:27 AM
Thanks, Jack, for your careful reading of the story as it appeared in the hard-copy HCN magazine. I have corrected the mayor's name in the online version here.
Nicholas Redmond
Nicholas Redmond says:
Feb 01, 2012 11:09 PM
All of these laws that basically let billboards be a cancer for urban development are very strange. The description of them as "weeds" I think is very apt. What concerned me moreso than the fact that billboards have this strange power over lawmakers is that these same loopholes could be provided for ANY industry; greed facilitates blight.
Mike Welch
Mike Welch says:
Feb 02, 2012 03:41 PM
I know I am in the minority here and I am sure I will catch hell from others, but really who cares? What are cities and interstates anyhow? To me they have always been places that house the unisightly and often ugly. Who cares, put billboards all over Salt Lake, Denver, Portland, Seattle, San Fran, L.A., whatever, just dont put them in the mountains or the desert or any other natural areas yet to be destroyed by "progress", then I would actually give a hoot. But come on, interstates and cities!?! These are places so full of ugly that billboards become an afterthought. Sort of like managing busy natural areas, you sacrafice one spot (a fishing hole on a river or a "designated"/specific site out in the desert or mountains)let people do their thing there (i.e. trash it) and keep them away and out of all the other areas around it. Simple damage control really. Same sort of concept here. Trash the cities and interstates and protect the natural environments found elsewhere. Works for me. After all, as a wise one once stated, "we cant have our cake and eat it too."
Tom & Jane Meacham
Tom & Jane Meacham says:
Feb 02, 2012 03:54 PM
Mike Welch, there is a lot of beautiful natural environment to be seen and enjoyed from the interstates between cities. Why should this public beauty be sacrificed to private commercial greed and opportunism? Take a scenic drive through one of the few states that bans highway billboards, and you'll see what I'm talking about.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Feb 02, 2012 03:56 PM
Mike Welch, yes you should catch hell for your comment, and I'll start. Speaking of ugly, "sacrifice" is the ugly word in your post. Why should you have the power to tell me in Seattle that I should accept an ugly urban environment (sacrifice my quality of life) because billboards aren't permitted in the nearby Cascades? Urban dwellers have as much right to a healthy and pleasant environment as you who live near so-called "natural areas."

More importantly, you're view is inherently self-destructive as well as human-centric (selfish). We have run out of places to "sacrifice." One example (out of dozens readily available with the simplest research): There is not a "natural forest" left anywhere on earth; we have so altered the atmosphere and biosphere, not an acre of habitat is left that has not been anthropogenically altered.

We have crossed from the Holocene into the Anthropocene ( I'd rather have my human-created world not be full of corporate crap in my face 24/7.
Doug K Halford
Doug K Halford says:
Feb 03, 2012 07:42 AM
I would venture to say no one really obtains information from billboards. You are driving and paying attention to the road (hopefully) and not reading billboards. So the position that removing them cause intangible loss of future earnings is bull. The cities or counties should do a survey and ask people how much they are influenced by billboard messages. My guess would be a very small fraction. Then that infolrmation could be used to show the companies their billboards have no value and they should be removed at the billboard company cost. Talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars. These companies are leaches on their communities.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Feb 03, 2012 11:40 AM
Doug--As long as the billboard companies can get advertisers to buy their space, "future earnings" will be lost. It's the advertisers who need convincing. And elected officials.
Mike Welch
Mike Welch says:
Feb 03, 2012 07:37 PM
Toby, Tom, Jane, lets be reasonable here we obviously have differing perspectives. I assume yaw'ls being much more "majority" approved--at least with a High Country News audience. I also assume since you read High Country News you quite possibly have come across some Edward Abbey waxing very similar philosophy to my own. Remember his anti-paved road rants and writings, the ones in which he advocated littering (throwing "empties" out the car window) and general destruction to interstates and highways? Quick fact: Abbey was an Anarchist, not an Envrionmentalist. I guess I, on occasion, can relate...obviously Toby you cannot. SO...destroy the interstates and cities,fill em' up with garbage and billboards--*34k em'!!! Chalk this up to silly childish posturing, which I am positive someone like Toby will have no problem doing, but lets get real here. I beleive there are things in this world worth protecting---and preventing for that matter. Will I fight for these things, absolutly. Do billboards littering city streets and interstates fall into this category? Far, far, far, from it. Wow, that just sounded like another cliche, "you have to pick your battles", man I am full of these things.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring says:
Feb 17, 2012 11:23 AM
If you'd like to hear me talk about Utah's billboard battles, here's a link to a Feb. 16 "Community Voices" program on Park City's KPCW NPR station -- ...
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler says:
Feb 20, 2012 09:37 PM
Mike Welch--"I guess I, on occasion, can relate...obviously Toby you cannot." I know well that Abbey was not an enviro, at least not as we currently think of that category. On the other hand, he had a keen sense of the need to "monkey wrench" business as usual years before most people became aware of global warming, peak oil, etc. On the other other hand, you're right that I have little sympathy for "silly childish posturing." I'm not sure what I think about Abbey in that regard.

I agree with you that "there are things in this world worth protecting." And that we must pick our battles. IMO, allowing any increase in corporate power and control over our environment and daily lives is a battle worth fighting by those most directly affected. Giant signs and billboards in my town? I'm ready. For example, we beat back a proposal to allow the new company in town to change the rules to let it put up a huge neon sign. Seattle's skyline remains free of this blight due to the outrage the proposal elicited.[…]/la-na-seattle-signs-20101214 .

Small stuff? Perhaps, and I actually spend most of my time working on global warming and helping communities figure out how to get ready for the coming major changes (and when possible, educating them as to the causes--global capitalism driven by carbon). But like I said above, I cannot stand the thought of corporate crap shoved in my face, or in our schools, and I'll use all the political power I can muster to help stop it.

As long as you don't support ugliness in my neck of the woods (which I consider to be pretty large!), I'll support you in whatever battle you pick. I don't think it's an either/or question.
Jason himelstein
Jason himelstein says:
Apr 22, 2014 12:46 PM
Mile High Outdoor in Denver has ripped off and mislead advertisers, with incredible deception. If an investigative reporter ever did a just a little checking, he or she, would find unbelievable corruption.
Paul & Betty Whiting
Paul & Betty Whiting says:
Apr 22, 2014 01:17 PM
Tom and Jane Meacham:

The fourth state that bans billboards is Maine. Interesting the very names of these four states conjure up beauty. When I phoned Scenic America in DC for some help in billboard control in Montana, the woman I spoke with said, "Montana? Why would anyone put up billboards in a state like Montana?"

Why, indeed.

Paul Whiting
Doug Smith
Doug Smith says:
Apr 22, 2014 01:51 PM
Great comment Paul, are Vermont, Maine, Hawaii or Alaska any more beautiful than Montana? My fear is that Montana is on the cusp of getting control of a runaway problem or the billboards are going to continue to proliferate. The Exit off I-90 to Four Corners and into the Gallatin Canyon to Big Sky is well on its way to becoming one of the ugliest stretches of highway in America. Obscuring gorgeous scenery that keeps Montana from being just another state.
My solution is to tax the hell out of the advertiser, tax the billboard company more and tax the idiot landowners who let the billboard companies put these monstrosities on their property. Hopefully that makes the entire escaped cost prohibitive. There is no doubt in my mind the billboard industry will cover this entire nation from coast to coast with millions of billboards if allowed. What happened in Salt Lake City and Atlanta is sad and disgusting. This is an industry that has no limits and bigger is always better. I make a point to boycott any company I see on a billboard. I wish millions more did the same.
Tom & Jane Meacham
Tom & Jane Meacham says:
Apr 22, 2014 02:16 PM
How did this 2-year-old thread suddenly get revived? What's happening in Montana?
Doug Smith
Doug Smith says:
Apr 22, 2014 02:53 PM
It's been two years and I am still pissed and the billboards are popping up like daisies.
Paul & Betty Whiting
Paul & Betty Whiting says:
Apr 22, 2014 03:17 PM
Tom and Jane,

Well, IMO not enough is happening in Montana. Several years ago we were able to restrict billboards to only industrial zones, but those zones are very loosely defined. If some guy puts up a shed and slaps a taxidermy sign on, the zone is now industrial. However, that ruling did help somewhat in non-industrial zones along the Interstates. Here in Billings we were hoping for a "no new construction" ordinance instead we got "cap and replace" - this has the effect of holding the number constant - no net gain, but no way to get rid of them either. If one comes down due to new right of way or bad weather, it can replaced somewhere else. With "no new construction", the number gradually diminishes due to attrition. Takes a while, but eventually they get phased out.

And within Billings, it's not just billboards. It's flashing, scrolling, blinking electric message signs - some even with video clips. Tacky, tacky. Missoula and Bozeman are much stricter within city limits.

At least for now, however, digital billboards are out. Let's hope that ruling holds.