Americans long have had a love-hate relationship with billboards. They love how the signs keep drivers awake on long trips, breaking up the monotony of an endless interstate. They love their memories of classic ones, dating back to the old Burma Shave rhymes.

And yet they hate billboards for blocking their view of scenic vistas and for cluttering cityscapes with intrusive reminders of how crass capitalism truly can be.

Lady Bird Johnson made a name for herself by successfully pushing legislation that removed many signs from the nation's roadsides. But many legitimate businesses, including this newspaper, use them effectively to promote products and with virtually no public backlash. Last month, a radio station caused a stir with a set of billboards so provocative one of them attracted vandals. As attention-getters, they work. As money-makers, they seldom lose.

Salt Lake County has tried to find the perfect balance between these two sentiments. In deciding where to draw the line in the vast and populated unincorporated areas, the County Council voted this week to set a cap and allow billboard owners to bank what they currently own, meaning they could replace any sign they take down with a new one somewhere else.

That is a decision made with common sense, not emotion. But it isn't likely to satisfy a lot of people.

Politically, this is a tricky issue. Rarely has a public hearing on billboards attracted many people anxious to speak in favor of the things. And opponents, especially ones who have signs virtually in their back yards, come loaded with anger.

In this case, however, the cap-and-bank idea is the best long-term approach. An outright ban, as many billboard opponents want, would simply guarantee that a billboard in place would remain there forever. Under the type of ban that was proposed, an owner who removed a billboard would lose the right to replace it anywhere. Given the revenue signs generate, no owner with an ounce of sense ever would do that.

No doubt many people would like the county to both ban and force the immediate removal of all signs. But billboards are real property. If the county forced them down, it would have to pay fair market value, much as if it condemned someone's house or business. That would be an expensive proposition, made more so by the lawsuits it undoubtedly would generate.

Some people also anguish over the political power of sign companies, such as Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which contribute regularly to candidates of all stripes. In 2002, that company's political contributions added up to $62,549.50. Indeed, the industry has been beneficiary of favorable legislation through the years. And yet, the concerns of angry residents haven't been ignored, either.

Given the options available, the cap-and-bank system was the only one that would allow billboards to be removed from areas that now cause many people grief. That makes it the fairest solution for all parties.