Proposed legislation that would allow billboards displaced by highway reconstruction to be relocated in the same area - and force the state, counties or cities to pay for moving the signs - is the latest installment in the turf war between local governments and outdoor advertisers.

Senate Bill 14, sponsored by Sen. Al Mansell, also would allow billboard companies to remodel illegal signs and leave them in place. It would make it difficult for cities and counties to remove billboards to make way for new development without compensating the advertising companies.The bill would extend the length of sign permits from a year to five years, widen the roadside corridor within which signs can be placed, and formalize an existing Department of Transportation policy allowing advertisers to have trees and shrubs removed if they block motorists' view of signs.

Salt Lake businessman Bill Reagan, president of Reagan Outdoor Advertising Inc., has tried for decades to persuade legislators to give local governments less control over his industry. This time, local officials say, Reagan has pulled out all the stops. Salt Lake City planning director Bill Wright calls the bill "the big bang."

Reagan may be looking for a little "bang" for his buck. He is a frequent contributor to political campaigns and in 1996 donated more than $55,000, including $26,000 to the Republican party and $13,450 to Gov. Mike Leavitt's political action committee. Reagan reported cash donations to Sen. Mont Evans, R-Riverton; Rep. Marty Stephens, R-Farr West; and Attorney General Jan Graham, and in-kind contributions to Sen. Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville; Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake City; Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake City; and Rep. Orville Carnahan, R-Taylorsville. Mansell said he has accepted in-kind donations from Reagan's company.

Reagan said he gives money to candidates to help preserve his industry's rights but denied he is trying to buy legislation.

"I don't think you can buy the passage of legislation. If you could, I wouldn't have to worry about going up (to the Capitol)," he said.

Mansell, R-Sandy, is still working with Reagan and other outdoor advertisers to fine-tune SB14, which combines several bills that failed in '96. He plans to amend the bill, which will be heard by the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee.

Mansell said the bill doesn't ask for additional sign locations or give outdoor advertisers any new or special privileges.

"I think it's a little bit of a fairness issue to allow the companies to continue to operate," he said. "It gives them a little protection from being run out of business by government regulation."

Local officials see it differently. Park City attorney Jodi Hoffman said the bill eliminates communities' ability to determine their own destinies.

"It's hard to say what the public interest is in a bill like this," she said.

Wright said the bill could conflict with Salt Lake City's sign ordinance.

"We've identified gateways . . . where we will not allow additional billboards," he said. "If I'm reading this (bill) correctly, those gateways, if they are state or federal highways, this law would pre-empt our law and allow billboards to be located on those roads."

Wright said the bill could obstruct new development. If a property owner decides to build an office complex and a billboard is on the land, the landowner normally would terminate the lease and get rid of the sign. But if SB14 is passed, Wright said, the city would be forced to find another comparable site where the sign could be relocated and pay for that relocation, or pay the advertising company for the value of the sign - an expensive proposition.

St. George permits large commercial signs only along its freeway corridor and has capped the number it will allow. When non-conforming signs are removed for any reason, the city won't let companies replace them with legal signs. City Manager Gary Esplin said the bill could override the city's law.

Gary Crane, Layton's city attorney, said Reagan is using the I-15 reconstruction project to facilitate a power grab. Crane said there is no need for a state law mandating the replacement of signs along I-15 in Salt Lake County because local communities there don't object to relocations.

Reagan said he hasn't heard that from any of the cities but admitted the legislation goes beyond I-15 to protect existing sign locations on other state and federal roads.

He said his company and Young Electric Sign Co. could lose a total of 50 signs when I-15 is widened. But John Leonard, UDOT's operations manager for the I-15 corridor, said only seven signs will have to come down when reconstruction begins this spring. Only three of those signs are of the larger billboard variety and only one is owned by Reagan. Earlier in the project's development, however, it did appear more signs would have to go, Leonard said.



Campaign contributions - Reagan Outdoor Advertising


1993 $13,600

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1994 $26,450

1995 $12,120

1996 $55,461

Total $107,631

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