One of the unforeseen benefits of the construction of the Expo Line from downtown L.A. to Culver City has been the removal of a number of non-permitted billboards in the right-of-way for that light rail system. But before celebrating a small victory for the city’s visual landscape, consider the fact that CBS Outdoor, the company that owned the signs, has been able to count them against the total it agreed remove in its 2006 lawsuit settlement with the city.
That settlement adopted by the city council without any public discussion required CBS and Clear Channel to each remove 49 of their billboards. The headline in the L.A. Times the next day read, “2 Firms Agree to Remove 98 Billboards in Settlement,” and the article made no mention of what everyone now knows was the heart of that toxic settlement, a provision allowing the companies to convert 840 of their conventional billboards to digital, with brilliantly-lighted, rapidly-changing images that have provoked complaints from residents across the city. In fact, the article went on to say that the settlement represented “a small but significant step in Los Angeles’ years-long battle against billboards.”
But our city council members didn’t intend billboard companies to be able to claim credit for removing billboards that weren’t legally erected in the first place, or for billboards that had to be taken down to make way for public or private real estate developments, did they? Unfortunately, as recent statements by several council members have shown, these elected officials were both ignorant of and confused about what they were voting on when they unanimously approved the lawsuit settlement hammered out by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who may have owed his 2001 election to free billboard advertising provided by some of those same companies.
In a section entitled “Take Downs,” the 45-page settlement agreement filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in January, 2007, states that the selection of signs to be removed “shall be at the sole discretion” of the companies. It further states that “sign structures taken down for any reason” shall count toward the total number of required removals.”
As to the question of whether signs never legally permitted can be counted, the lawsuit settlement grandfathered all pre-1986 billboards in the city and allowed for the “re-permitting” of billboards erected between 1986 and 1999 that either have no permits or are out of compliance with their permits, as long as they could have been lawfully erected or modified under regulations in effect at the time. And what about billboards so illegal that they are ineligible for this “re-permitting?” The settlement agreement says they can still be counted toward the required number of “take-downs.”
According to a Nov. 7 report by the city’s Department of Building and Safety, CBS Outdoor has removed 28 billboard structures, and has five more demolition permits pending. Clear Channel has taken down three structures, and has one demolition permit pending. A third company, Regency Outdoor, agreed in a later settlement to remove five of its billboards, but hasn’t applied for any demolition permits, according to the building department report.
In addition to the billboards on the Expo Line right-of-way, CBS has gotten credits for removing billboards on a number of sites where the entire property was cleared to make way for large-scale commercial and residential developments, such as a medical office building on Santa Monica Blvd. in Westwood, and a condominium complex on Sawtelle Blvd. in West L.A.
Another billboard company, Vista Media, was a party to the lawsuit with CBS, Clear Channel, and Regency, but in 2005 reached a separate settlement with the city in which it agreed to take down 500 signs that had been put up without any permits. According to the building department report, Vista Media (now owned by Lamar Outdoor Advertising) hasn’t applied for any demolition permits or removed a single one of the 500 billboards.Dennis Hathaway