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Reasonable restrictions on digital billboards that swap images are OK, industry leaders tell Salt Lake City, but the attendant crackdown on animated signs in front of businesses would siphon sales and city sales tax — and suck away jobs.

That was the argument, made persistently Tuesday, by dozens of merchants and sign-industry executives, who implored Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council not to enact a new set of electronic sign regulations.

"This is a bad thing to do. It's a bad time. It's bad for business," said Jeff Young, vice president for Young Electric Sign Co., noting no evidence exists that animated signs distract drivers and cause car crashes.

"I saw businesses go under in Kansas City as the ordinances were changed there," Vonja Maxfield told the council. "Please don't let that happen in Salt Lake."

The council won't vote until Jan. 17 at the earliest. Members want still more data on the 10-month-old debate, including advice on whether the rules governing freeway billboards and on-premise business signs should be separate.

Right now, Becker's proposed ordinance couples the two. It would allow electronic billboards in manufacturing zones and commercial corridors but not near neighborhoods. A company must take down an existing billboard to erect its flashy cousin, meaning no net increase. And images on the large signs could only change every eight seconds.

Existing business signs would be grandfathered from the new law. But the sticking point is a ban on animation — technically illegal in the city for 35 years — or an effort to enforce the ban.

That had leaders from car companies, credit unions and even the Utah Jazz buzzing with anger at the public hearing.

"New businesses can't survive if they can't make a statement that can be heard," said Michael Place, president of Western Nut Company, which has been in business near Pioneer Park for 29 years. "This ordinance is unjust to small business and in particular, to mine."

Matthew Garff says his family's car business paid $550,000 for two electronic billboards, but would not have made the investment had they known the law was coming. "Those billboards are basically null and void to us if we can't advertise like we hoped to."

And Robert Tingey, general counsel for the Utah Jazz and EnergySolutions Arena, said the NBA team cannot compete with bigger market arenas under an animation ban. Limiting the signs outside the arena, he said, could crimp attendance and crush area restaurants.

Not all at the public hearing agreed with the industry line. George Stutzenberger said the limits won't kill jobs, maintaining digital signs are an eyesore. "There are other ways to advertise," he said. "It is a distraction to driving. We tell people 'you can't text and drive,' but it's OK to read those signs?"

Becker considers the rules a compromise. And Frank Gray, the mayor's director of community and economic development, says the regulations would not be retroactive. "Existing signs that are legal today," he said, "will remain legal."

Problem is, animated signs have been getting a pass. And businesses fear the sign police could come knocking.

Jason Mathis, representing the Salt Lake Chamber, called on the council to allow animation for on-premise business signs. He had plenty of backers Tuesday.

"Set aside public opinions," Randy George said, "and do what is best for the tax-generating businesses in our city."

Simonsen wins chairmanship

In a 4-3 vote that reflects the new political and personality divisions on the City Council — and could portend a policy shake-up — Soren Simonsen was elected chairman for 2012. He had been rebuffed during earlier attempts at council leadership since Rocky Anderson was mayor —¬†until now.

By unanimous vote, newcomer Charlie Luke, who beat J.T. Martin to represent District 6, was elected vice chairman.

The dissenting votes came from outgoing Chairwoman Jill Remington Love, four-term veteran Carlton Christensen and Avenues representative Stan Penfold. —

SLC lifts pet limits, adds cat licenses

Following in the footsteps of Salt Lake County, the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to erase its two-dog and two-cat limit per household. But the ordinance also requires cats to be licensed for the first time. And it boosts fines — $125 for a second offense, $250 for a third — for pet owners who fail to license their animals.

The goal is to promote responsible pet ownership and to limit euthanasia cases, especially for cats who rarely make it out of the county shelter.

A one-year cat license will cost from $5 to $25 depending on sterilization and installation of a microchip.

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