By Kari Merrill and Jessica Henrie
It’s late on a Friday evening, and Macie makes her way carefully down I-15 back toward her hotel. She’s a guest here, and her busy weekend has left her exhausted and bleary-eyed. It’s time for some good, solid rest, and she drives quickly and steadily toward her exit into Salt Lake.
All of a sudden, her tired eyes are ripped from the road by a bright flash of light, and she jerks the steering wheel to recollect her focus. Her action is accompanied by an angry, blaring horn from the pickup in the next lane as she casts her gaze to the original offender: a gigantic electronic billboard flashing tauntingly between advertisements.
“We certainly don’t have those where I’m from in Idaho,” she said, “and it’s really distracting.”
Macie isn’t the only one who feels the billboards are a nuisance. BYU sophomore Mara Duenas, an open major from New York, said the billboards are very distracting when she’s driving as well.
“I swear I have attention deficit disorder,” she said. “I think your eye naturally catches on things that are moving, and electronic billboards kind of do; they change.”
The signs are designed to flash between advertisements as quickly as every eight seconds, and are beginning to dot the city of Salt Lake.
According to the Salt Lake City Council, the spread of billboards both electronic and regular has become a bit of an epidemic. Just within the city, the number of signs has soared to 145, six of which are electronic. Though the council unanimously passed an ordinance on Jan. 24 banning any more electronic billboards to be put up, its efforts to reduce the amount of local billboards and limit electronic ones may soon be trumped by legislation from Utah’s Capitol Hill.
Salt Lake’s regulatory ordinance involves a sort of bargain between the city and billboard companies, basically ruling that in order to convert billboards to electronic along interstates and highways, the billboard company must remove a sign elsewhere, most likely along a city entry. But this ordinance, as well as similar ones across the state, would become irrelevant if bill sponsors have their way.
Two identical bills proposed in the House and Senate, if passed, virtually protect Reagan Outdoor Advertising (the largest billboard company in the state) as well as other billboard companies from the local jurisdiction of individual cities and counties. Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy and Senate Majority Whip, and Rep. Melvin Brown, R-Coalville, are sponsoring the bills.
Recently, Niederhauser was joined by two other Senate leaders in backing an amended version of his bill, SB 136. Brown, who introduced the identical bill at the beginning of the legislative session, will support Niederhauser from the House as the status of his HB 87 advances. The bills are aimed at making billboard regulation by Utah municipalities impossible except by means of eminent domain, a ruling that would likely crush Salt Lake’s attempts to reduce the billboard market throughout the city.
Both Niederhauser and Brown were unavailable for comment, despite repeated attempts by The Daily Universe to contact them. A substitute SB136 was passed by a senate committee on Feb. 7 and remains “circled,” or on hold, in the Senate. The story is similar for HB87, which was approved by a House committee and remains on hold in the House.
Specifically, the bills would apply the entire process of eminent domain if a city desires to remove a billboard. If a billboard company chooses to sue the city and wins, the city must pay for the company’s attorney bills. Cities will be allowed to ban the use of electronic billboards from midnight to 6 a.m. as well as prohibit them from being erected within 150 feet of residential areas. Outside of those restrictions, cities wouldn’t be allowed to regulate billboards.
According to Holly Garner, a BYU theatre major from Arizona, the legislation wouldn’t impact her personally, as electronic billboards prove to be no bigger of a distraction to her than regular billboards.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” she said, “but if there are statistics saying more people die from them [electronic billboards] or something, maybe it would be a good idea.”
Jodi Hoffman of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and Gary Crane, an attorney from Layton, spoke against the legislation during a committee meeting Feb. 7, while another attorney and several lobbyists representing local billboard companies spoke in favor.