ST. GEORGE – Electronic billboards – bright, technologically advanced beacons of mass advertising – have long been a controversial issue in communities throughout the nation. In Utah, the debate is heating up as advertising companies, legislators and community interests compete in a tug-of-war with little common ground in sight.
Legislative arguments for and against billboards
In the past four legislative sessions, the billboard industry has played a hand in introducing legislation that would remove a municipality’s planning and zoning authority over the conversion of traditional billboards to electronic ones. None of those legislative attempts have passed.
“In the 2012 legislative session, we had two identical bills that passed the House and Senate committees unanimously, went to the house with a 55-16 favorable vote and we were convinced we had our votes in the Senate. Our bill was never voted on in the Senate, but we had significant support and we are convinced the legislation would have passed,” YESCO Senior Vice President Jeff Young said. “We agreed to drop our bill, S.B. 76, in the 2013 session due to threats from the Utah League of Cities and Towns to push legislation through that would have been very detrimental to us.”
Jodi Hoffman, lawyer for the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said:
The ULCT has strongly resisted the proposed legislation. As a result of intensive lobbying from the billboard industry several years ago, a community with a billboard currently must allow the billboard owner to move the billboard from what could have been an entirely appropriate location to an entirely inappropriate and intrusive location. The requirement occurs simply at the whim of the billboard owner, such as their desire to relocate to a more highly trafficked area. As such, communities have become wary of allowing additional billboards in their communities, even in appropriate locations, as they simply can’t stop them from relocating to inappropriate places.
Also, cities can’t prevent a billboard owner from advertising in a way that (may be) highly offensive to the community. They can’t prevent a billboard owner from displaying images that may be completely inappropriate for children to see or messages that would otherwise undermine the peaceful nature of the community. Once a billboard is located, the community is left to the judgment of the billboard owner.
The ULCT would like to keep planning and zoning a local decision. We support legislation that respects all private property rights, as opposed to a system that gives special privileges to billboard owners at the expense of the owners of businesses and homes in the vicinity.
We secured permits to install these billboard signs many years ago. Those permits were issued by the local cities where the signs are installed. In every case, we also secure a state permit to use these signs. Virtually all permits include the option to illuminate these signs. We converted our method of delivering graphics to our signs years ago when we switched from hand-painted panels to digitally printed and stretched vinyl graphics. The conversion to an LED electronic sign does not constitute a change of use. We are still providing a graphic for our customers. The image is still illuminated, which is no change from what we’ve been doing for years.
We have never asked the state to expand our opportunity to install more signs. In fact, in most cities across the state, no more new signs are allowed. The legislation we have supported is geared toward maintaining our rights to use and keep the billboard inventory we already have. The federal and state laws are set up to manage billboards. We pursued additional legislation on the state level not to take local rights away, but to clarify existing billboard laws currently in place.
We understand the sensitivity that certain cities have surrounding this technology. Furthermore, we assert that the cities had the option of issuing or not issuing the original permit and shouldn’t necessarily be engaged in efforts to limit our rights to use these signs with LED technology, when the fundamental use hasn’t changed. It really is a property rights issue. Many cities love this technology and regularly advertise with us. We have played an important role in educating cities and municipalities across the country in the relationship their local codes have to the existing statewide billboard statutes.
Sen. Steve Urquhart said:
Billboards involve a balance between the rights of the sign owner and surrounding property owners. After all, that is the advantage of billboard advertising: It reaches far beyond the piece of property on which the sign is located. Currently, Utah’s billboard laws make billboards the most-favored property right in the state. Once billboard owners locate a sign, they get the right to actually control land use on surrounding properties, so that views of the sign are not obscured. If views are obscured, billboard companies basically have the right to relocate the sign anywhere they want. To give the companies such sway over surrounding property owners is absurd, and it should be corrected.
Billboards, like all advertising, can promote commerce and the economy. That is important. But, unlike other forms of advertising, billboards impose significant externalities on surrounding properties. If left completely unrestricted – to which point I believe Utah has devolved –billboards can blight a community, harm surrounding property owners and hurt the economy.
In the 2013 legislative session, Urquhart introduced S.B. 240, a bill directly opposing S.B. 76. It was defeated as part of a negotiations stalemate between legislators and private parties for and against modifying billboard provisions.
“My bill would have given regulatory jurisdiction to the state for signs on highways and to cities for nonhighway signs. For highway signs, my bill would have given sign owners the automatic right to convert static signs to electronic signs, but it would have controlled brightness and the turnover rate to industry standards,” Urquhart said. “I thought it was a heck of a deal, but sign owners are so accustomed in Utah to getting whatever they want that they refused to engage in the process. That’s their choice. If they don’t want to come to the table, the talks will still go forward. I look forward to receiving community input on billboards and fashioning laws that balance competing rights.”
Community arguments for and against billboards
Electronic billboards provide a considerable advertising boost to businesses that purchase space on them. Unlike their predecessors, vinyl signs that continually display one image, electronic billboards use LEDs as their light source and are capable of full-color, full-motion digital graphics, capturing attention. Multiple businesses can advertise on a rotating basis on each sign, thus significantly expanding a billboard company’s profits.
“There is significant and growing demand for billboard media by local, regional and national advertisers,” Young said. “Nearly 75 percent of our space is sold to local businesses, which can tell you how cost-effective and successful this media is.”
Billboards also provide community service messages at no cost. Law enforcement agencies, from local Sheriff’s offices to the FBI, use electronic signs to broadcast Amber Alerts, missing persons and wanted criminals to many people in a short amount of time.
In a well-publicized March 2012 case, 11-year-old Aliyah Crowder of West Valley City was abducted and held hostage by her estranged mother. Within a half hour of an Amber Alert being issued for Crowder, a high-priority notice with her picture, description and contact information for local police was posted on all electronic billboards in Utah. At a press conference following the incident, Salt Lake County Sheriff James Winder credited the widespread exposure of the billboards with driving Crowder’s mother to contact police, which led to the successful negotiation and recovery of the girl.
For as long as they have been seen along America’s streets, electronic billboards have raised traffic safety concerns. It has been suggested that they distract drivers and lead to crashes, potentially exacerbated by the fact that they are often installed on busy roadways that already have a higher accident frequency.
Many states and federal agencies have attempted to identify a relationship between electronic billboards and traffic safety to determine whether they contribute to distracted and dangerous driving. In a 2001 report by the Federal Highway Administration, Department of Transportation personnel from five states were asked if a crash relationship with electronic billboards had been determined in their state; all responded that one was not identifiable.
In an effort to assuage safety concerns, the outdoor advertising industry follows a series of general rules regarding display. Full-motion videos are not allowed, and static images change no more frequently than every eight seconds. These requirements are supported by federal guidelines, along with regulations adopted by the State of Utah through federal-state agreements.
Many companies, including YESCO, have imposed brightness restrictions upon their own products and sponsored studies investigating the possible effects of electronic billboards on traffic safety. YESCO has also invested in light research to understand how LED signs behave in comparison to traditional vinyl billboards illuminated by flood lights.
“(These studies) indicate that when brightness is controlled, LED signs have virtually no additional impact than their predecessors,” Young said. “In fact, in some bright ambient light conditions, the LED signs are actually less bright than a vinyl graphic in the sun.”
Additionally, Young offered the results of a 2009 study on distracted driving by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which show that sign glances are around one second long, falling well below the safety threshold of two seconds (texting distracts drivers for an average of 4.6 seconds.)
Numerous other studies have been conducted in an attempt to establish a connection between billboards and traffic safety. Like the varied attempts at legislation and arguments on both sides of the general billboard issue, the results are mixed and ultimately, inconclusive.
“I actually like electronic billboards. I think they are pretty,” Urquhart said. “But we need to make sure that they are located in the right places, that they don’t distract drivers or keep neighbors up all night.”
“In the right location, an electronic billboard can complement the surrounding land uses and enhance the community,” Hoffman said. “In the wrong location, any billboard, and especially an electronic billboard, can prevent surrounding properties from developing to their full potential and can detract substantially from public and private investment to enhance a particular segment of a city.”
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