After a year of research, hand-wringing, discussion and debate, the Salt Lake County Council has made up its mind regarding billboards: There will be no outright ban of future billboards in the unincorporated areas.

The council voted 6-3 Tuesday to institute a "cap-and-bank" system, whereby billboard companies who tear down one billboard may, within three years, build it in another spot.

The total number of billboards will not increase and, council members hope, may decrease over time.

After some tweaking of the details, the council is scheduled to make the vote final next week.

Local governments trying to suppress proliferating billboards along the Wasatch Front have split between those enacting an outright ban and those enacting a cap-and-bank system. Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Layton are among cities that have a cap-and-bank system, while Provo is among those with a ban. Opinions differ on the effectiveness of each.

County Councilman Joe Hatch, a billboard opponent, said he decided to join the majority of council members in rejecting a ban because the cap-and-bank system may, in the long run, result in better-placed and even fewer overall signs.

"If it doesn't work, people are free to come and yell at me and vote me out of office," he said.

The argument against an outright ban is that billboard companies would have no incentive to move particularly egregious signs to more suitable locations — once they're down, they're gone forever. Ban opponents say billboard companies would leave existing signs in place, as Councilman Randy Horiuchi put it, until "you pry my cold dead fingers from (them)."

Reagan Outdoor Advertising president Dewey Reagan said the cap-and-bank measure, which he championed, is "a reasonable compromise."

Reagan, the largest billboard company in Utah, has eight signs planned for I-80 near Saltair that the county has permitted but the Utah Department of Transportation has yet to approve. The new county ordinance mandates that — unlike other signs permitted but not yet built, which have three years — those signs must be built within a year or Reagan loses them forever.

"In that regard, I think Reagan made a great sacrifice," Dewey Reagan said. "We're taking it on the chin."

The company already has been taking it on the chin from billboard opponents, who vociferously decry the blocked and blighted landscapes they say result from billboard placement. During the past year, the County Council has heard a continuous outcry from community councils and township councils to ban billboards completely.

Councilman Jim Bradley, the council's most vocal billboard opponent, agrees with them.

"There's no motivation" for billboard companies to remove signs under the cap-and-bank system, he said. "I don't see how letting them take a sign down and move it somewhere else is better."

Dewey Reagan points to a survey conducted by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which concluded 50 percent of Americans favor billboards.

Before the vote, Bradley pointedly asked each council member to disclose whether he had accepted campaign money from the billboard industry and whether he had discussions with billboard company representatives. Five council members — Horiuchi, David Wilde, Cortland Ashton, Michael Jensen and Bradley himself — said they received contributions, and all the council members said they had discussions with industry representatives.

Reagan is well-known for generous and widespread campaign contributions both in local and state races.

Already the heavy hitter in the Utah billboard industry, Reagan has been accused of trying to monopolize the market with the cap-and-bank proposal. But Dewey Reagan, who originally proposed it last spring, said there was no other alternative, given mounting opposition to billboards.

"I was trying to operate under the circumstances that existed at the time," he said.

Ted Phillips, spokesman for County Mayor Nancy Workman, said the cap-and-bank option is "an opportunity for the billboard companies to put their money where their mouth is."