SALT LAKE CITY — He's no longer mayor, but he's not stopping his fight against billboards.
Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has a long history of conflict with major billboard companies. And even though he's no longer in office, Becker has helped launch a new Utah effort to combat what he calls the "proliferation" of what has almost become an "embarrassing blight" on Utah scenery.
Becker and his wife, Kate Kopischke, have worked together to launch Scenic Utah, a state affiliate of the national nonprofit Scenic America, a group "dedicated solely to preserving and enhancing the visual character of America's communities and countryside," according to its website.
"We want to fight the visual blight that too often occurs from just a lack of attentiveness and a lack of organized effort to protect the spectacular, visual qualities of both our communities and landscapes," Becker told KSL in an interview Thursday, the day before the new group's official launch.
Friday, Scenic Utah is co-hosting the annual Scenic America Symposium at the Alta Club in downtown Salt Lake City — a daylong conference with presenters who will focus on urban planning and public policy, billboard and sign control, dark sky preservation, and how to protect scenic byways, according to the event's agenda.
"We are thrilled to be meeting in Utah this year," Ryke Longest, chairman of Scenic America's board of directors, said in a prepared statement. "We look forward to bringing affiliates from all over the country together to experience the state's stunning natural beauty and the Salt Lake City's local character."
Becker's beef with billboards dates back decades. He's called them neighborhood blights, deterrents to economic development, and causes of scenic landscape degradation, all fueled by what he calls a massive political influence by the large corporations.
More specifically, Becker has had a longstanding conflict with Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Utah's largest billboard company.
"With Scenic Utah, we will have a place for those of us who care about the iconic landscapes and byways we have, and almost the embarrassing blight that has overtaken a lot of those vistas," Becker said.
"We'll have a place we can organize and counteract some of the power Reagan Outdoor Advertising and these big corporate lobbyists who pretty much get their way at the Legislature and state government."
Nate Sechrest, general counsel for Reagan Outdoor Advertising, declined to comment on this story when reached Thursday.
In the past, officials from the company have argued against billboard restrictions, saying they're bad for business and that most residents don't think billboards are a problem.
Billboards cropped up as an issue in Becker's unsuccessful 2015 bid for re-election after Reagan Outdoor Advertising paid for billboards for all of Becker's challengers, including at least 15 for now-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
At the time, Becker demanded Biskupski take down the billboards, but Biskupski said she wasn't at all involved in the billboards and the company's political action committee had "every right to do whatever they want through free speech."
In 1993, when Becker sat on the Salt Lake City Planning Commission, city officials tried to cap and reduce the number of billboards allowed in city limits. But that ordinance was met with "strenuous opposition" from companies like Reagan Outdoor Advertising, Becker said, which resulted in favorable billboard laws passing at the state level.
Becker said Scenic Utah aims to lobby for more anti-billboard legislation at state and city levels.
Becker noted that he, representing Scenic Utah, already got involved in some recent appeal cases in front of Salt Lake City, where staff denied an application from Reagan Outdoor Advertising for two new billboards along 400 South and North Temple in Salt Lake City.
Becker attended the appeal hearing and argued against the appeal. The hearing officer later upheld the denial.
"Knowing Reagan Outdoor Advertising, I know they're not done continuing to pursue their case and if they operate the way they usually do, they'll go to the state Legislature and get (lawmakers) to overturn the city ordinances that have been in place, because that's what they do almost every year," Becker said.
In particular, Becker's got his crosshairs on electronic billboards, which he said have become an increasingly "glaring" problem, calling them not only "incredibly distracting and annoying but also a major public safety issue" for drivers.
"There's a combination of things that cause us a lot of concern, and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to have those adverse impacts, both in terms of visual blight but also in terms of public safety, are considered as elected officials make decisions (about billboards)," Becker said.