Two years ago, a company called L.A. Outdoor Advertising put up full-sized billboards along the north side of the Harbor freeway downtown. There were some problems with this—the company hadn’t obtained any permits and the billboards violated various sections of the city’s sign code relating to height and freeway proximity, in addition to the general prohibition on off-site advertising signs.
The city cited the company, and predictably, the company reacted by suing in federal court to block enforcement. Now, as the suit works its way through the legal system, newly-elected City Attorney Carmen Trutanich has filed a counterclaim seeking more than $6 million in damages and an order requiring the removal of three of the billboards, which are on private property but less than 100 feet from the roadway.
This welcome action addresses an ongoing complaint about enforcement of sign regulations—that the penalties for violations are so insignificant that a company eyeing the considerable revenue from billboards and supergraphic signs in prime locations like the freeways will simply consider it a cost of doing business.
That complaint is valid if the city relies on the penalty in the municipal code for sign violations—a maximum of $100 a day. However, the municipal code also states that any violation may be designated a “public nuisance” and subject to a fine of up to $2,500 a day. That provision hasn’t been used in the past for sign code violations, for reasons that could be open to speculation, but include the fact that the building department can’t simply levy the fine but must rely on legal action by the City Attorney.
The City Attorney has also gone after the owners of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the company that put up a huge supergraphic sign on one side of the historic building without permits.
No doubt these cases will drag through the courts for some time before any final resolution. But if the city prevails, it could throw a big monkey wrench into the strategy of rogue sign companies, which is to put billboards and supergraphic signs wherever they can get property owners to sign leases, then sue when inspectors come around to point out the violations of the sign code.
These companies appear to be operating on the theory that even if they ultimately lose in court they stand to make millions in the interim from advertising revenue. If they could lose all or most of that revenue, they might think twice before digging that hole in the ground or hanging that ad over the side of a building.Dennis Hathaway