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Rush Limbaugh billboard pits Reagan Outdoor ad industry against Utah cities

Reagan Outdoor Advertising has sued to keep views of its Rush Limbaugh sign at 600 South unobstructed.
Reagan Outdoor Advertising has sued to keep views of its Rush Limbaugh sign at 600 South unobstructed.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's somewhat fitting that Rush Limbaugh — or at least his looming likeness — has a ringside seat for this local political rumble.

The bombastic conservative radio commentator's countenance currently graces a Reagan Outdoor Advertising billboard located near 300 W. 600 South that has been at the center of a rift pitting Utah's outdoor advertising industry against its cities and towns.

Vexed city government officials say the back and forth over this billboard underscores growing concerns that the Utah Legislature has gone too far protecting the rights of billboard owners at the expense of local zoning controls.

Matters came to a head recently when Reagan Outdoor, invoking state law that allows for damages as a result of governmental action, sought approval from Salt Lake City to raise its billboard along 600 South to a height of 85 feet. The request sought to mitigate the billboard being visually blocked by business signage that next-door neighbor Springhill Suites intended to put up.

In this case, Reagan Outdoor argued that city approval of Marriott Corp.'s permit to build the hotel constituted taking negative government action, although Salt Lake City Planning Director Wilf Sommerkorn still scratches his head wondering how the city could have legally denied the hotel's building permit given that Marriott's plans fully complied with city ordinances.

The issue seemed to be rendered moot at one point when the city negotiated with the new hotel and compensated it to erect its sign elsewhere on the property where it wouldn't pose a visual obstruction to the billboard. Apparently that didn't satisfy Reagan Outdoor, which also claimed its billboard was visually compromised by several light standards installed in the hotel's parking lot. The billboard company says the light poles interfere with sightlines of passing motorists.

The city's Board of Adjustments finally rejected Reagan Outdoor's contentions. But the battle is far from over, as the outdoor sign company has filed suit in 3rd District Court to overturn the BOA's decision. Because of pending litigation, Morgan Philpot, director for governmental affairs for Reagan Outdoor, said he's unable to comment specifically about the 600 South billboard.

Jodi Hoffman, a lobbyist contracted by the Utah League of Cities and Towns to work on this issue, said what's happened with the 600 South billboard isn't unique and that municipal governments are frustrated with current billboard laws they believe are heavily tipped in favor of the outdoor advertising industry.

"The billboard companies enjoy a unique right, a unilateral right, to control land uses around them," she said.

Layton City Attorney Gary Crane agrees. Billboard companies enjoy a "right in perpetuity for view corridors in public right of ways," he said, adding that protections now being afforded billboards trump surrounding property rights.

Crane says cities have been fighting an uphill battle with the billboard industry for years. "The pendulum is always swinging in the direction of the billboard companies and never changes back. It needs to be pulled back."

Sommerkorn said that nearly every year, for multiple years running, lawmakers have passed legislation favorable to the billboard industry. "It's interesting what kind of treatment billboards get (in the state code) compared to other land uses," he said.

Philpot strongly disagrees. "The simple fact of the matter is that current law has not created any new billboards. What has happened is that the industry has successfully advocated to the Utah Legislature to prevent municipalities from taking our lawfully permitted and erected property by police powers without paying just compensation," he said. "We're simply asking that we be allowed to use the property (billboards) that we've been permitted to erect."

That doesn't change what Crane considers to still be the most favorable billboard laws of any state. And it's that perceived imbalance that has the Utah League and several of its member cities ready to take their case to Capitol Hill this session. If ongoing talks between the two sides can't produce a workable compromise, they intend to introduce legislation aimed at reducing the carte blanche billboard owners presently enjoy.

Thus far, Reagan Outdoor hasn't been in a conciliatory mood, according to Hoffman. "We're at the edge of the cliff where we're going to have to decide to throw down the gauntlet and fight or continue to negotiate, but Reagan is making it difficult."

Philpot thinks the rhetoric is premature. "We're in good-faith negotiations with the League right now," Philpot said, adding another meeting has been scheduled for today.

But are Utah local governments tilting at billboards?

Utah's billboard companies — Reagan Outdoor in particular — flex considerable political muscle within the state through effective use of lobbyists and aggressive political contributions — often manifested in the form of coveted billboard exposure for politicians during campaign season.

Crane recognizes what the cities are up against. "It's amazing the lobbying power they (the billboard lobby) have up on the Hill, he said.

Hoffman believes Reagan and other billboard companies are using the law to gain a business advantage. It's a business decision for them. The billboard company's goal is to increase product visibility either by going higher or getting structures moved to more favorable locations, she said.

Under state statute, potential remedies for a billboard adversely affected by governmental action are threefold: The billboard's height can be raised above the visual obstacle; the billboard can be shifted to a location agreeable with its owner within a half-mile radius of the original structure; or the municipality can purchase it outright for removal, Hoffman explained.

Sommerkorn said establishing the true value of an asset such as a billboard is proving tricky because Reagan Outdoor isn't responding to city queries on buyback costs.

Hoffman said she's been in meetings where numbers as high as between $1.5 million and $2 million have been tossed around when estimating the value of the 600 South billboard. That number, in part, comes from billboard companies grouping multiple billboards into what are termed "showings," increasing the worth of individual billboards several-fold, she said.

Crane cautions against mistaking the cities' stance as being anti-billboard. City officials of every stripe understand the importance and value billboards play in promoting businesses and the community, he said.