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
 

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In Utah, billboard corporations have tried all those strategies and more. In 1993, for instance, Kunz Outdoor Advertising, a California billboard corporation, made a deal with a small southwestern Utah tribe, the Shivwits Paiute. Kunz loaned the tribe money to buy 25 acres along Interstate 15 within the city of St. George, in a scenic area where the city and the Utah government didn't want billboards. The Shivwits Paiute persuaded the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to hold the land in trust for the tribe, and the corporation put up five billboards advertising Nevada casinos, paying a lease fee to the tribe after an initial grace period. The city and the state sued, and the case went to 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided in 2005 that the deal was legal under the doctrine of tribal sovereignty. Bob Nicholson, St. George's director of community development, says, "It's a real shame, skirting the intent of the Federal Highway Beautification Act."

Even though some Utah cities  -- including Provo, Ogden and Park City -- have banned new billboards, the state government might be the most billboard-friendly in the nation, thanks to Utah's innately conservative politics, which favor property rights over regulations, as well as the influence of Utah's billboard companies, particularly Reagan Outdoor Advertising. Although other billboard corporations operate in the state -- including the Young Electric Sign Co., or YESCO, which manufactures digitals -- Reagan appears to have the most clout.

It's a family-owned company, founded by William K. Reagan in 1965. A college student at the time, he began by making his own signs, digging the post-holes and "hammering them into the ground near highway shoulders," according to a 1991 profile in the Salt Lake Tribune. Eventually, Reagan Outdoor Advertising bought out Utah's biggest billboard company and had more than 9,000 billboards nationwide; then it sold off its holdings in the East, leaving it with 4,500 "sign faces" in 1991. Today, it's headquartered in Salt Lake City and run by one of William K. Reagan's sons, Dewey Reagan. In a phone interview last November, he declined to reveal the company's current holdings and revenues, but his website and other sources say that Reagan Outdoor has billboards all over Utah, plus Austin, Texas, and Las Vegas, Nev.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising and its executives have donated more than $450,000 to Utah candidates in the last 10 years alone, according to the state's financial disclosure office and the National Institute for Money in State Politics, which both track campaign spending. Most of those donations were spread widely among many dozens of members of the Utah Legislature -- including $26,000 to one of the most powerful, Sen. John L. Valentine, the Senate president from 2004 to 2008. At least $30,000 went to Utah governors. (Reagan Outdoor also donated $201,450 to Texas candidates from 2004-2010, according to the National Institute for Money in State Politics.) Many of the donations were cash; the rest were "in-kind donations" apparently of advertising space on Reagan Outdoor billboards.

Reagan Outdoor Advertising's executives and consultants have also actively lobbied the Utah Legislature, where the company generally appears to get what it wants.

Here in Salt Lake City, that pattern is clear. The city's government imposed a cap-and-reduce program for traditional billboards around 1993, but has made little progress because of the pro-billboard laws passed by the Utah Legislature.

One Utah law, for instance, has decreed that billboards are personal property, which means that taxes on them are extremely low compared to the taxes on buildings and land. That means local governments get little from taxing a billboard, even if it's on a valuable downtown lot. As a result, billboard corporations have a low overhead.

Another key law has to do with "amortization," the process by which local governments retire "nonconforming land uses." If a government passes regulations to phase out chicken coops, for instance, a lot of existing chicken coops won't conform to the new rules. Therefore the nonconforming use is allowed to continue for a certain amount of time, typically five or 10 years, and then it has to end without compensation. The process gives businesses and property-owners time to adjust to regulations. But in Utah, there's a broad exception for billboards along all kinds of roads. So when Salt Lake City limits their placement and size, thereby making many existing billboards nonconforming, the government can't just order the removal of those signs within five or 10 years. Instead, it has to buy out any nonconforming billboard it wants to retire.

Under another Utah law, when Salt Lake City does buy out a billboard, the terms are highly favorable to the billboard corporation. The government must pay not only the estimated value of the revenue stream from that billboard over the years, but also an amount calculated to cover the loss of that billboard -- how it might affect the "economic unit" that includes the corporation's revenues from other billboards. The rationale? If the corporation has one less billboard to rent to advertisers who want a lot of billboards, those advertisers might place their ads elsewhere, so the damages are larger than losing a single billboard.

If a city or county government wants to get rid of a billboard, other state laws often allow the corporation to simply relocate it to a different site nearby that is not zoned residential. If the government still wants to remove the billboard, it has to pay damages that amount to buying it out. If a local government even allows anything to obstruct the view of a billboard, in many places, it must pay similar damages. Local governments lack the money to pay all of those damages, so they have to pick their battles carefully and often shy away from enforcement actions.

Many other Utah laws protect billboards. For example, a corporation has the right to "structurally modify or upgrade" an existing billboard. That makes it hard for Salt Lake City's cap-and-reduce program to prevent the reconstruction of old deteriorating billboards, the way other cities do. Another law says that even the designation of a national historic building cannot force the removal of a billboard on the roof, something that Salt Lake City tried to do with one historic structure. Yet another law -- 72-7-505 Subsection (1)(d) in the state code -- says that "a changeable message sign is permitted if the interval between message changes is not more frequent than at least eight seconds" -- a loophole that would appear to allow for digital billboards. And a law passed in 2009 at the urging of Reagan Outdoor Advertising allows billboards on many stretches of designated scenic highways. And so on.

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