Annals of Inaction: L.A.’s New Sign Ordinance

Sign Ordinance Urgent

People who have followed the twist and turns of the city’s long-running billboard wars may be surprised to learn that the Los Angeles City Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled to discuss a new citywide sign ordinance at its meeting on Sept. 24. Why surprised? Because all the way back in 2009 the commission held three lengthy public hearings on that very same ordinance before approving it and sending it on to the City Council.

The ordinance approved by the nine-member commission on March 26 of that year was referred to the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee. Two months later it landed on City Council desks, but members opted for inaction and cast it back into the murky waters of the PLUM committee, where it has bobbed about like a piece of flotsam, disappearing for long periods of time, then suddenly surfacing to attract the hurried excitement of community members and lobbyists before disappearing again.

But now, after six years and a total of 18 meetings in which the ordinance was on its agenda, PLUM committee chairman Jose Huizar has declared its passage urgent, which is exactly what his former colleague on the committee, Jack Weiss, said back in 2008 when adverse court decisions were threatening to give sign companies free reign to plaster their billboards and supergraphic signs all over the city. Weiss left the council the next year to make an unsuccessful run for City Attorney, so one can only imagine his feelings about the fact that the ordinance he sponsored is still waiting to be ushered into the Municipal Code.

As for the City Planning Commission, the obvious question is why the ordinance is going there if the commission has already held public hearings and voted on it. The answer lies in the City Charter, which requires commission actions to return for review if they are substantially altered before final passage by the City Council. The commission routinely delegates this authority to the city’s director of planning, but last week it voted to revoke that delegation in the case of the sign ordinance, and the measure will be on its agenda for the first time since it voted 6-3 in a room crowded with lobbyists and community activists to move it along to the City Council.

None of the members of that commission are members of the present commission, so it’s hard to know how they will look upon the ordinance. There have been significant changes since its passage, but important parts of the original ordinance have survived the vicissitudes of ensuing years, including various reports from the Planning Department and City Attorney, amendments put forward by PLUM committee members, both past and present, and major court decisions that altered the legal landscape of the city’s regulation of billboards and other signs.

In fact, the Planning Department hasn’t yet issued a report to guide commission deliberations, although planners have indicated that they expect the commission to only review a small part of the ordinance, not the entire thing, which runs to 57 pages in current form. An alternate view holds that the commission is entitled—indeed, obligated–to review the entire ordinance since none of its members were around at its inception, but it remains to be seen how deeply they will delve into its more complex—and controversial—provisions.

It’s certain, however, that the commission will have its say on one of the most controversial recommendations made by the PLUM committee, which is to grant “amnesty” to billboards that either lack permits or have been altered in violation of their permits. According to the city’s Department of Building and Safety there are just under 1,000 of these; according to an independent analysis of the department’s inspection data, there may be as many as 4,000.

Then there is the highly contentious matter of digital billboards. At its last meeting, the PLUM committee received a report on allowing new digital billboards on any commercial street through the issuance of conditional use permits, but it’s unknown whether this idea that instantly generated outrage from anti-billboard activists will be considered by the nine members of the Planning Commission. The current version of the ordinance bans digital billboards anywhere but in sign districts, which in turn can only be established in one of 20 geographic areas zoned for high-intensity commercial use.

If commission members are inclined to look beyond these limited elements, they could find plenty to consider in the subject of sign districts, which was probably the topic of most debate in the original commission hearings.

By way of background, in 2002 the City Council approved a ban on new billboards and modifications to existing ones, but it—unwisely as it turns out—included exceptions for sign districts, specific plans and development agreements. The billboard ban created a kind of land rush of lawsuits by sign companies, and the one that proved most successful argued that these exceptions were unconstitutional because they undermined the ban’s stated purpose of enhancing the city’s aesthetics and improving traffic safety.

It was under the cloud of this court ruling that the City Planning Commission began debating the new sign ordinance, which eliminated the exceptions for specific plans and development agreements and tightened up the criteria for sign districts, including the geographic restrictions mentioned above as well as a provision requiring billboards to be taken down in surrounding commuities before new signs could be put up in sign districts.

At the time, there were two sign districts and one specific plan area that allowed new off-site signs, but when the commission took up the new sign ordinance there were nine that had either been applied for by property owners or proposed by city councilmembers. Lobbyists for these property owners and other interests argued that all nine should be “grandfathered.” In other words, not automatically approved but allowed to proceed through the system without having to meet the geographic restrictions or the takedown requirement.

The commission didn’t agree. Of the nine “applied-for” sign districts it only grandfathered two that it had previously approved but hadn’t gotten final approval from the City Council. The others would have to proceed under the new ordinance, or if they couldn’t comply, be withdrawn.

The PLUM committee proved to be more fertile ground for lobbyist complaints of unfairness and inequity, however, and it added all the “un-grandfathered” sign districts to the grandfathered list. On the other side of the coin, the most important elements of the ordinance approved by the commission managed to remain intact through two committee meetings. In summary, they were:

-A continuation of the 2002 ban on billboards and other off-site advertising signs.

-A ban on all digital signs outside sign districts, including conversions of conventional billboards.

-The elimination of specific plan and development agreement exceptions to the off-site sign ban

-New civil penalties for ordinance violations that were high enough to hopefully deter the ongoing erection of illegal billboards and supergraphic signs.

-Much more stringent criteria for establishing sign districts where digital and off-site signage could be allowed.

-A mandatory takedown of billboards as a condition of establishing any new sign districts.

On May 20, 2009, the ordinance came up for a vote before the City Council. Those who believed that billboards and building-size supergraphic signs advertising fast food, alcohol, cars, and other commercial products seriously degrade the city’s visual environment allowed themselves a small sigh of relief, but that feeling was premature, to say the least. Both politics and legal concerns intruded, as councilmembers decided to defer action to give newly-elected City Attorney Carmen Trutanich the opportunity to weigh in, which was curious given that the office had already had a major hand in writing the ordinance. There was also discussion of the fact that the city was pursuing an appeal of the 2008 federal court ruling holding that the sign district exceptions rendered the off-site sign ban unconstitutional, and that maybe it would be better to wait until the appellate court ruled.

It looked like the new ordinance might languish indefinitely, but in 2010 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals surprised some observers by reversing the lower court ruling, saying that the city could grant exceptions to the off-site sign ban in the form of sign districts if these areas were limited in number and served the ban’s stated purposes of enhancing the city’s aesthetics and improving traffic safety. On Oct. 19 of that year, the PLUM committee discussed this development, and on Nov. 30 directed the Planning Department to proceed with a final draft of the new ordinance, incorporating some changes that had been proposed since the initial passage nearly two years earlier by the City Planning Commission.

One of those changes completely dropped new restrictions on on-site signs, which had run into opposition from business organizations and lobbyists. Others added more “applied-for” sign districts to the grandfathered list and eliminated a “private right of action” that would have given residents the right to sue the owner of an illegal sign for damages.

On July 22 , 2011, the Planning Department handed the PLUM committee its final draft of the ordinance. This one grandfathered applied-for sign districts, which had grown to 14 in number, but retained the takedown requirement originally approved by the City Planning Commission. According to the Planning Department and City Attorney’s office, this “billboard takedown” requirement was especially critical in light of the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that sign district exceptions were legally defensible if they were limited in number and could be shown to promote the enhancement of aesthetics and traffic safety. Because grandfathering sign districts that wouldn’t otherwise qualify would potentially increase the numbers of such districts in the city, it was particularly important that they comply with the billboard takedown provision, which directly related to aesthetic enhancement.

Predictably, lobbyists for developers and others interested in getting revenue from new signs objected, calling the takedown requirement onerous and impractical. And once again the PLUM committee listened, directing the Planning Department to work out a plan to allow “community benefits” to substitute for all or part of this requirement, which could have potentially resulted in the removal of hundreds of existing billboards in communities from midtown to east L.A. to the San Fernando Valley.

That meant more rewriting, more meetings, more delay. Finally, on Dec. 5 the PLUM committee had yet another “final” draft of the ordinance in its hands. This one allowed sign districts to offset half the billboard takedown requirement with a “community benefits” package and added stadiums with more than 50,000 seats to areas eligible for sign districts—an obvious assist to the then-active proposal for an NFL stadium downtown—and a prohibition on off-site advertising in public parks and facililities.

But there was no vote, and little indication from the often opaque remarks of the committee chairman, Ed Reyes, when there might be one. In the meantime, community activists hoped they might be able to work up support to make the ordinance stronger, and lobbyists no doubt were thinking of how they might rid it of its more burdensome provisions.

There proved to be plenty of time, because the ordinance didn’t surface again until almost exactly a year later. Developers and their lobbyists were still fighting against the takedown requirement even in its weakened form, certain City Council members still wanted to find a way to get advertising into city parks, and community activists were calling for the ordinance to be enacted without further delay, fearing that more dithering could only lead to weakening changes. And maybe most significantly, everyone was waiting for the outcome of a lawsuit called Summit Media vs. the City of Los Angeles.

In 2006, the city had settled a lawsuit by Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor by allowing them to convert a total of 840 conventional billboards to digital. A small billboard company called Summit Media challenged that settlement in court, and late in 2009 a superior court judge ruled that the settlement violated the sign ordinance’s ban on modifications to existing billboards because it was done without any required public process such as notifications and hearings.

The billboard giants appealed, but on Dec. 10, just a day before the PLUM committee meeting, the appeals court upheld the judge and ordered the revocation of permits for the 101 billboards converted to digital before the judge’s initial ruling.

Even before this, Clear Channel in particular had mounted an intense lobbying campaign aimed at getting the city to change the sign ordinance to save its digital billboards. This campaign, which included public relations, threats of lawsuits, and the writing of a stillborn City Council motion, had not brought concrete results by the time the judge ordered the companies in April, 2013, to “pull the plug” on their digital billboards, but it likely created further delay in adopting the ordinance.

There was also a change of hands at the PLUM committee, with Ed Reyes being termed out and Jose Huizar taking over the chairmanship. And new members Mitchell Englander and Gil Cedillo coming on board and ostensibly having to be brought up to speed on the complex and everchanging measure.

The issue of illegal billboards and what to do about them also boiled up after simmering ever since the building department’s initial citywide billboard inspection and inventory in 2011. Most of those signs were owned by Lamar Advertising, Clear Channel, and CBS Outdoor (now Outfront Media) and the companies were lobbying to have them legalized on the grounds that they were protected by a state law commonly known as the law of the “rebuttable presumption.” And of course, all of the companies wanted more digital billboards and were making this desire known to politicians.

Hence, on June 30 of this year the sign ordinance was again on the PLUM committee agenda, along with proposals to grant the illegal billboard amnesty and establish a conditional use permit process for new digital billboards. And after a parade of speakers and some committee discussion, Huizar announced that the committee had also decided to remove the billboard takedown requirement for grandfathered sign districts, although the only previous mention of this came from the head of a downtown business organization who complained about it.

The City Attorney’s office had warned in the past that removing this takedown requirement could put the off-site sign ban in legal jeopardy. The office had also sent the PLUM committee a letter opposing the amnesty, saying that the city could successfully enforce the law against many of the illegal signs. But no matter. Getting the ordinance on the books was now urgent, Huizar said, after city planners outlined the reasons the ordinance would have to return to the City Planning Commission for review.

As in all billboard matters involving the City of Los Angeles, stay tuned.

Dennis Hathaway

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