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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...
  • DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - HR
    Career Opportunity: Director of People and Organizational Culture Do you have interest in approaching organizational culture from a place of creativity and curiosity? Do you...