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Bill to extend Utah’s scenic byway program causes stir over billboard provision

by Staff

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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed bill to extend Utah’s scenic byway program is getting backlash from a nonprofit that argues a provision to shake up who serves on the committee which oversees new byway proposals will threaten the purpose of the program.

State lawmakers, on the other hand, say the changes will make for a better “representative sample” as new roads are considered.

SB28, sponsored by Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, calls for a few changes to the Utah State Scenic Byway Program, including how a highway is designated as a scenic byway, how one is declassified and how one is nominated either a National Scenic Byway or an All-American Road. It also would remove the program’s existing Jan. 2, 2025 sunset date.

Utah’s program has been active since the mid-1980s to “preserve and promote the unique roads throughout Utah that link travelers with tourism destinations, outstanding recreational opportunities and public lands,” according to the Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding. There are 28 national and state byways scattered across the Beehive State.

However, leaders of Scenic Utah, a nonprofit working to “protect and enhance the scenic qualities” of Utah’s communities and roads, say they take issue with allowing a representative of a billboard company to serve on the committee that oversees new proposals.

If approved, the new board would include individuals appointed by the Utah Office of Tourism, Utah Department of Transportation, every county where a scenic byway exits and the Utah League of Cities and Towns, as well as “one representative from the outdoor advertising industry appointed by the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity.” The Utah Office of Tourism appointee would serve as head of the committee.

It would also remove appointments made by the sitting governor, as well as requirements that representatives from several groups, including the Utah Division of State Parks, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, are on the committee.

An RV travels along Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway within Capitol Reef National Park on May 22, 2021. The Utah Legislature will consider a bill to extend the state's scenic byway program and shake up the structure of its committee.
An RV travels along Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway within Capitol Reef National Park on May 22, 2021. The Utah Legislature will consider a bill to extend the state’s scenic byway program and shake up the structure of its committee. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who serves as chairman of Scenic Utah’s board of directors, argues the changes offer “a gift to billboard companies” because it gives them more power during the byway consideration process. He said Utah could be the first state where “scenic byway legislation is shaped in coordination with the billboard industry.”

“Granting billboard owners a pivotal role on the Scenic Byway Committee is comparable to entrusting foxes with guarding a henhouse,” he said in a statement Wednesday.

As the law stands, existing billboards can be grandfathered into newly designed byways, but new signage wouldn’t be allowed (except for sections of the byway not considered scenic), according to Vicki Varela, director of Utah’s tourism office, who spoke about a draft version of the proposal during a Transportation Interim Committee meeting in November.

She addressed the topic after Sen. Heidi Balderree, R-Saratoga Springs, questioned the need to include billboard companies.

Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, explained the intent is to create a committee with a “representative sample” of people impacted by every new scenic byway request.

“I just think there needs to be a representative of all the voices of people who are interested because signs are a part of the roadways. If we decide to designate a section of road a scenic byway, it could impact those who have already invested in signage in that area,” he said at the time. “We just want to be fair.”

He also noted there could be “an adjustment down the road,” as the bill goes through the legislative process. Nate Seacrest, who represents Reagan Outdoor Advertising, said it’s “been standard” for Utah to include industry members on boards where decisions could impact the industry.

But Becker and other members of Scenic Utah remain unsatisfied with how the bill is written, adding that they have concerns over how the committee could decide what is considered scenic in the future.

“Yeilding once more to monied interests and neglecting the will of the majority of Utahns would be an embarrassment for the state of Utah,” he said.

As for other proposed changes, Kurt Gasser, managing associate general counsel of the nonpartisan Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel, said the bill would adjust how the committee functions and lift a “big task” off the governor, summarizing the intent behind the bill.

The committee would exist “as needed,” so if there’s a road in nomination for scenic byway status, the committee would set up with a representation of that local area instead of a “permanent committee that’s representing the state as a whole,” he said.

The number of people serving on the committee would also fluctuate depending on a request, Christofferson said. If the road in question goes through multiple counties, there would be a representative for all the impacted counties on the committee reviewing the request.

Transportation Interim Committee members ultimately voted 13-2 in favor of the draft bill back on Nov. 15. SB28 will be one of hundreds considered during the legislative session that begins on Tuesday.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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