Scenic Utah Wages Fight on Drastic Billboard Laws

Utah may be known for its majestic scenery and stunning landscapes, but if state legislators get their way, the Beehive State may soon be known for one of the most damaging billboard laws in the nation. On January 19, 2021, Sen. Scott Sandall introduced SB61, allowing any billboard owner in Utah to upgrade their billboards to electronic flashing formats, even if such a conversion is prohibited by local governments.

Just one week later, Sen. David Hinkins introduced SB 144, an equally appalling bill imposing even more restrictions on municipalities’ ability to regulate or remove billboards.  

“Both bills ignore the fact that most towns and cities already ban the addition of new billboards, and that 248 towns and cities, represented by the Utah League of Cities and Towns, oppose this legislation,” says Scenic Utah’s Kate Kopischke, who is leading a campaign to put a stop to the bills. “No other state in America has adopted statutes so comprehensive and detrimental to communities as this.”

As Kopischke notes, the bill takes away local control over billboards, restricting or all together eliminating communities’ ability to mitigate their negative impacts. The bills also raise safety and environmental concerns, and a range of issues related to dark sky protection. (Utah has the highest concentration in the world of International Dark Sky parks, and dozens of communities are recognized for their quality night skies.)

Scenic Utah acted quickly to galvanize the scenic-minded public to speak out on these measures, urging them to contact their senators and house members to oppose the bills. Within just a few days, hundreds of Utahns took action, flooding their elected officials with emails and phone calls. Local media took note and reported on the topic. A petition page on Scenic America’s website attracted more than 2,000 page views!

Legislators have taken note of the opposition.

At the SB61 committee meeting, members raised concerns about various provisions and directed Sen. Sandall to work with the bill’s proponent, Dewey Reagan of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, and the Utah League of Cities and Towns to draft a revision. Sen. Dan McCay, for example, raised questions about the negative impact of digital billboards on homes and neighborhoods, saying if such concerns were not addressed in a revision, he would vote NO in a floor vote. But despite committee members’ reservations, McCay and all but two of other members voted to send SB61 to the full senate.

Since then, the bill has undergone two revisions, amid a continuing barrage of opposition spearheaded by Scenic Utah and the League. In a Senate floor vote on Feb. 24, it failed – to the surprise and delight of opponents. After a short-lived celebration, Kopischke said, the Scenic Utah team is preparing for Reagan lobbyists to send the bill back to the Floor ‘reconsideration’.

“Industry is probably on the warpath right now,” she said. “We aren’t letting our guard down; these bills tend to come back in the very last days of the session, where leadership can push them through quickly, without further debate.”

In the meantime, SB144 – also backed by Reagan – remains on the Senate’s calendar. This bill, which also failed its first vote and came back for reconsideration, contains a provision that prevents local governments from even suggesting to landowners that there may be a better use of their property than hosting a billboard.. Scenic Utah and others consider it a ‘revenge bill’ aimed at Salt Lake City for buying out a downtown billboard that a lessor no longer wanted on his property. A lawsuit filed by Reagan over that case against the city and then Mayor Ralph Becker (a Scenic America Board member), was recently dismissed by a US District Court.

SB144 sponsors are apparently working on revisions that sponsors say ‘should address’ the significant opposition. But in Scenic Utah’s view, any compromise on either bill would still be a huge giveaway to industry – and a huge loss for Utah and its scenic vistas.

With just one week left in the session, Kopischke says Scenic Utah is carefully tracking the bills’ last-minute movements as they’re revised and ‘negotiated.’ We’re maintaining our full court press to defeat these scorched earth bills,” she said. If they come up again, “we’ll be there, guns blazing!”