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.