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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Asked if his company is buying legislation, Dewey Reagan says: "No. What you do gain by supporting (politicians) is the opportunity to express your concerns about issues. It's no different for the billboard industry than for the Sierra Club or any other industry that wants its viewpoint heard."

Reagan defends Utah's billboard laws. When it comes to taxing billboards as personal property, he argues that a billboard is the "instrument by which the intangible value of the location is tapped. The value isn't the billboard structure," it's the location, and often a billboard company is just leasing the location from a landowner. On the exception to the typical government method of phasing out unwanted land uses, he says it's "unfair to regulate a nonconforming use out of existence without compensation." On stretching damage calculations to include what happens to the corporation's entire "economic unit" when one billboard is removed, he compares it to a hypothetical High Country News losing subscribers in a key city such as Boulder, Colo. -- something that would affect the magazine's overall "desirability" when it tries to sell ads. (The Outdoor Advertising Association of America takes similar positions, saying that "amortization for removal of legal outdoor advertising structures is extreme and unfair.")

"City councils are posed with a very difficult task when it comes to regulating any industry that deals with real property and property rights and striking a balance with the needs of the local economy," Dewey Reagan says. Like many others in his industry, he also stresses the role of billboards in displaying public-service messages, such as Amber Alerts and ads honoring 9/11 victims and Iraq War troops.

Disputes have also erupted over a few of Reagan Outdoor Advertising's contracts with Utah landowners. Four contracts showed up in lawsuits that High Country News reviewed in state court in Salt Lake City. Three of the contracts -- signed by landowners in 1977, 1987 and 1990 -- described a 10-year lease of the land for those three billboards, in a clause near the top of the page; a separate clause further down the page automatically renewed the contracts for another 10 years, so they were actually for 20 years total; the landowner could cancel at the end of the 20 years, but if he didn't cancel by the deadline date, the contracts would apparently remain in effect even longer. Another contract, dated 2006, had slightly different wording, describing a 20-year lease that was automatically renewed for another 20 years, unless the landowner canceled before that renewal deadline. All four contracts had clauses stating that if the owner ever wanted to sell the land under the billboard, Reagan Outdoor Advertising had the right of first refusal -- it could step in front of a buyer and acquire the site by matching the buyer's offer. Even if Reagan allowed someone else to buy the land, the contract's terms would remain in effect on the new owner.

Reagan Outdoor contracts with that kind of wording make it hard for landowners to remove the company's billboards from their property. They also give the company leverage to buy key billboard sites or negotiate billboard "easements" that stay with the land if it is sold to someone else, according to Dansie in the Salt Lake City planning office. Reagan's lease payments varied depending on the locations and sizes of the billboards (and presumably the acumen of the landowners); in the 1977 contract, Reagan Outdoor Advertising paid the landowner $240 per year; the 1987 contract paid that landowner $142 per year; the 1990 contract was for $1,000 a year; and the 2006 contract was $142 per year.

Dewey Reagan declines to discuss contracts or other specific aspects of his business, including the neighborhood effort to negotiate with him to create a park where one of his billboards stands. The 1977 contract was part of a lawsuit in which Lorraine Miller, the owner of two adjacent stores that sold home and gardening supplies, attempted to oust a Reagan billboard from her parking lot. A previous landowner had signed the contract; Miller bought the lot in 1985 and tried to cancel the contract in 1987, because she thought it allowed cancellation after the first 10 years. Her lawyer argued that the contract's wording was "unconscionable and illusory," but she lost in court in 1988 because the judge found that the separate clause calling for an automatic 10-year renewal was clear. Miller had to live with that billboard for another 10 years before the contract was canceled and Reagan removed it.

"I was so angry," says Miller, who's now retired. The billboard's poles created a parking obstacle, and the aesthetics were bad for her stores' image, she adds. "People (who sign such contracts) don't realize, they're tying up their property in a way that will destroy the value of the property for 20 years." Miller has won several national business awards, including the federal Small Business Administration's National Small Business Person of the Year in 1994 (she traveled to the White House to receive that award from President Clinton); she's also held leadership positions in several Utah business groups including the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce. But when she tried to lobby the Utah Legislature against the pro-billboards bills, she says, "I couldn't even get a legislator to look me in the eye. I just could not get their attention in any way."

There are about 150 conventional billboards and six digital ones in Salt Lake City now, and their fiercest opponents can be found in the mayor's office and the planning office. The Salt Lake City government is constantly battling billboard corporations. On busy 600 South, a primary gateway from I-15 into downtown, for instance, Reagan Outdoor Advertising has a large billboard next to one of the newer motels, a Marriott Springhill Suites. When the city approved the motel, Reagan Outdoor complained that the motel's sign would block its billboard and wanted permission to raise its billboard to be 85 feet tall. The city decided instead to have the motel change the location of its sign. Then Reagan complained that the light poles in the motel parking lot blocked views of the billboard and reportedly wanted more than $1 million in compensation. (That dispute is still unresolved.) On his downtown billboards tour, Dansie points to another billboard site where, he says, zoning laws permit a 375-foot-tall office building. The combination of a billboard easement and the law against blocking views of billboards is keeping that lot occupied only by a one-story strip mall, however. Other downtown billboards are similar obstacles to downtown renewal, Dansie says: "The reality is, the outdoor advertising industry is suppressing development."

Mayor Becker, who often opposed billboards when he served in the Utah Legislature and the Salt Lake City planning commission in the 1990s and early 2000s, led the Salt Lake City Council to unanimously pass a nine-month moratorium on new digital billboards last April. In December, he proposed a compromise in a draft of new regulations: More of the traditional billboards can be converted to digitals, but only in certain areas, protecting key viewsheds, gateway streets, neighborhoods and historic districts. Many of the digital billboards would also go dark from midnight to 6 a.m., and for each conversion to digital, another existing nonconforming traditional billboard would have to be removed. It's another attempt to reduce the total number of billboards over time and give the city a little more control over land-use planning.

But Reagan Outdoor Advertising and other billboard corporations, along with businesses that advertise on billboards, oppose the city's attempt to limit digital signs; they packed a Jan. 3 City Council public hearing. Meanwhile, there are two new City Council members, Kyle LaMalfa and Charlie Luke, who beat incumbents who had voted against digital billboards. LaMalfa got a $1,360 campaign donation from Reagan Outdoor Advertising, the single biggest donation to his campaign; it was an "in-kind" donation, which likely meant campaign advertising space. And Luke has worked as a lobbyist for Reagan Outdoor.

Whatever regulations the new City Council passes, no one would be surprised if the billboards corporations again make an end run to the Utah Legislature seeking relief. The legislative session begins in late January, and one city staffer says the regulators are walking a fine line. "We know they're going to ask for (more backing for digital billboards) in the Legislature. We're trying to back off from a ban on electronic billboards, for fear that the Legislature would prohibit bans. We're hoping the Legislature won't retaliate."

"We're about to go into a major battle with the billboard companies" in this year's legislative session, says another insider who works on billboards issues for several Utah cities. "They essentially want to eliminate our ability to regulate."

Ray Ring is High Country News' senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana.

Contributions to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund helped support this coverage.

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