The Los Angeles city planning department is proposing that 744 billboards without permits on file be granted legal status because of the difficulty of determining when they were erected and whether or not they complied with regulations in effect at that time.
The billboards, which are scattered throughout the city but most heavily concentrated in South and East L.A., were identified in the just-released citywide billboard survey conducted by the department of building and safety. The proposal to grant them legal, non-conforming status was presented to the City Council’s PLUM committee last week, but no action was taken.
According to the proposal, the status of the non-permitted billboards is complicated by a California law which says that billboards in existence for five years or more without being cited for violation of local codes should be presumed lawful. However, the law also states that this presumption is “rebuttable,” meaning that if local authorities can prove a billboard could not have been legally erected the presumption would not apply.
Some might assume that the absence of a permit on file with the city is proof that a billboard wasn’t legally erected, but the planning department takes a different view. A report presented to the PLUM committee says that because the city doesn’t know when the signs were erected it isn’t possible to identify the regulations in effect at the time. Hence, it would be impossible to prove that a particular billboard violated those regulations.
“Any attempt to rebut the presumption of legality would be extremely labor intensive and would probably yield negligible results,” the report concludes.
Almost all the 744 non-permitted billboards are owned by L.A.’s big three billboard companies—CBS Outdoor, Clear Channel, and Lamar Advertising, but most, if not all, of these billboards were originally owned by other companies. For example, Clear Channel owned no billboards here until 1997, when it took over Eller Media. Likewise, CBS Outdoor entered the L.A. billboard market in 2001 when Viacom Corp. purchased the inventory originally owned by the Gannett company, while Lamar Advertising acquired the billboards owned by Vista Media in 2008.
The planning department report doesn’t address the question of whether these companies have any records showing when the non-permitted billboards were erected.
The current city ordinance regulating billboards was adopted in 1986, with detailed regulations regarding sign types, sizes, and locations. In 2002, the ordinance was amended to include a ban on any new off-site signs, and a subsequent revision with more stringent regulations was approved by the City Planning Commission in 2009. That version is expected to be voted on by the PLUM committee in late July or early August.
Prior to the 1986 sign ordinance, billboards were required to have permits but were subject to only minimal regulations. According to city officials, permits may have been issued by more than one city department, and record-keeping wasn’t up to current standards.
It is possible, however, to make some general assumptions about the age of the non-permitted signs. For example, full-sized billboards like the one at right on a single steel support known as a “monopole” can be dated from the late 70’s and beyond, because the commonly used poles were actually surplus lengths of pipe from the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Also, a number of non-permitted billboards are located on residential property, and this was prohibited as part of the 1986 ordinance. So if one of these billboards is shown to have been erected after that date, it wouldn’t have been possible for the sign to get a permit.
There is another question surrounding the 485 non-permitted billboards belonging to Lamar Advertising. In 2005, three years before Vista Media sold its inventory of approximately 4,000 billboards to Lamar, it reached a lawsuit settlement with the city in which it agreed to remove all of its billboards that lacked permits. The planning department report doesn’t mention this fact or how it might affect the proposed amnesty.
The billboards granted this amnesty would have the legal status of non-conforming uses and could not be enlarged or otherwise modified, such as being converted to digital. However, they could be counted for the purposes of any billboard reduction deals worked out between the city and the sign companies.
The city’s latest billboard survey shows another 791 permitted signs that have been altered so that they no longer comply with those permits. These alterations include enlargements and the addition of unpermitted second faces. The planning department is recommending that the city require these signs to be brought into compliance or removed.
(Note: City officials and others have publicly said that about 500 billboards fall into the non-permitted category. However, that figure is the number of billboard supporting structures, not the actual number of signs, which is 744. We believe that the latter number is an accurate reflection of the impact of these signs, not the number of poles or other supports. )Dennis Hathaway