Scenic Utah helps communities and local governments revise ordinances and adopt measures that protect the aesthetic qualities of their streets, highways, and residential areas, and reduce or eliminate visual pollution caused by excessive outdoor advertising. We advocate for better and more transparent policies that reduce billboard clutter, hold outdoor advertisers accountable, and uphold the rights of government entities to regulate and ban billboards on both safety and aesthetic grounds. We stand with the majority of Utahns - who view billboards as intrusive eyesores that harm the visual environment, reduce property values, and detract from community character.
We support the efforts of Scenic America in standing up to legislative deal-making, and to industry and trade groups who spend millions of dollars annually lobbying regulatory agencies at every level, from city halls to Capitol Hill.
Utah ranks sixth in the nation for number of billboards on state roads (and second per capita), behind California, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida and Missouri. But we're third for the number of beautiful national parks and open spaces that attract millions of residents and visitors from around the world.
This is an embarrassing ranking.
We think Utah looks a lot more like Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont - the four states that BAN billboards - than New Jersey or Georgia.
Utah should be the FIFTH STATE to ban billboards
Billboard companies' highly influential lobbying over many years has resulted in unfair and unwarranted taxpayer subsidies and concessions – all at the expense of towns, cities, counties, private property owners and real estate developers.
Local governments get no measurable tax revenue from billboards. State law classifies billboards as personal property (such as jewelry, cars, and boats), rather than real property (such as homes and buildings). As personal property, billboard values are self-reported by their owners, and in fewer than 20 years a sign’s taxable value is amortized to zero. This means billboard companies report low – and for many billboards – no values for their billboards at tax time.
But purchase values are disproportionately higher than tax values. Once billboards are amortized, they are evaluated at a fraction of their construction cost and business value – for tax purposes. Yet, when a property owner, real estate developer or government entity needs to remove a billboard, the sign is treated more like real property, allowing a billboard company to demand a purchase price that is astronomically higher than the taxable value it reported. When a government is able and willing to pay the inflated price, taxpayers are stuck with the bill.
To remove one, Utah law requires us to pay for more. Even if a property owner, real estate developer or government only needs to purchase a single billboard (for a redevelopment project or to widen a road, for example), state law allows the billboard company to be compensated for an entire “package” (or bundle) of signs. If one billboard in that package needs to be moved, the property owner or government must pay as if it were taking the entire package. Package values are vague and defined by the billboard company. There is no requirement to demonstrate market value of a package, nor any limit on the number of billboards that constitute a package.
Billboards often make more expensive, deter, or even prevent, land development. Many Utah properties are zoned for greater development potential that would maximize the use and value of the land. But because billboard companies control use of the underlying property through lease agreements or easements, they can prevent any economic development that may adversely affect the visibility of their signs. Any attempt by property owners, real estate developers or governments to remove a billboard to accommodate redevelopment (and realize the tax value) triggers the inflated sales price.
Unlike most other landowners, billboard companies commonly ignore local zoning ordinances due to state laws allowing them to do so. State statutes allow existing billboards to be moved within one mile of their original location—for any reason. If local zoning ordinances prohibit billboards at the new location, state law requires that the government entity purchase the billboard at an inflated price. Since most local governments cannot pay the price, they’re forced to allow billboards to be reconstructed or moved, regardless of zoning laws or the public interest.
Taxpayers are subsidizing the outdoor advertising industry. Allowing billboards to be moved for any reason puts taxpayers on the hook for the private business decisions of billboard companies. For example, a billboard owner may cite loss of lease, or simply a desire for a better location, as reason for a move request—neither of which involve the public interest or would be initiated by a government entity. If the government denies the move request, its only option is to purchase the billboard at an inflated rate with taxpayers’ money in a narrow window of time. No other business is granted the “privilege” of moving location for business reasons, and demanding taxpayer compensation if their preferred location is not an option.
The 1965 Highway Beautification Act was supposed to protect America’s natural landscape from billboards. But more than 50 years later, it’s better known as the “Billboard Protection Act.”
The powerful billboard lobby – here in Utah and across America – has effectively gutted the original intent of the 1965 law. Throughout Utah, billboard companies continue to adapt and build newer, brighter and taller signs. They’re cutting trees to improve the visibility of their signs; demanding huge condemnation payouts; reducing property values; blocking our amazing vistas; polluting our night skies with unnatural light; and impacting our safety on the road.
Billboard companies are the among the top contributors to local and state political campaigns. In 2015, one company opened a political action committee and started making huge independent expenditures in the Salt Lake City mayoral race. This PAC ("Utahns for Independent Government") positions industry to continue influencing Utah elections, with no limits on what they can spend!
Scenic Utah seeks to restore the original intent of the Highway Beautification Act by working to ban new billboards, and tightly regulate existing outdoor advertising; and by fighting for governments' right to regulate and ban billboards.
We advise and advocate on behalf of communities and individual property owners who oppose the proliferation of outdoor advertising that reduces their property values and blights their communities and viewsheds.
A January 2019 poll conducted by the American Institute of Applied Politics included several questions about Utahns attitudes toward billboards. The ‘split-sampling’ poll of 750 likely voters statewide found, not surprisingly, that Utahns overwhelming oppose billboards. For example:
In split-sampling questions about people’s support for (1) ‘reasonable restrictions’ on billboards, (2) ‘some restrictions’ on billboards, and (3) a total ban on billboards, respondents were evenly divided on questions #1 and #2, but on #3, 72% of respondents strongly supported a TOTAL BAN on billboards.
SCENIC UTAH is continuing to collect information and data on impacts and attitudes toward billboards to share with lawmakers, planners, and community groups interested in protecting the visual character of their neighborhoods and roadways.