City Attorney: We’re Prepared To Take Action Against Many Illegal Billboards

This double-sided Clear Channel Billboard has permit for only one face.

This double-sided Clear Channel Billboard has a permit for only one face.

An L.A. City Councilman’s proposal to grant “amnesty” to nearly 1,000 unpermitted and illegally altered billboards has hit a potential speed bump in the form of a City Attorney’s opinion that enforcement action can be successfully taken against many of those signs.

In a Feb. 20 letter to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, which discussed the billboard amnesty at a meeting last December, Deputy City Attorney Michael Bostrom says that the City Attorney’s office is “prepared to aggressively enforce” against the 391 billboards the city’s Department of Building and Safety has identified as altered in violation of their permits.

In addition, Bostrom said that enforcement action may be successfully taken against at least some of the 546 billboard structures that inspectors have identified as lacking any permits.

This opinion stands in contrast to statements by Councilman Mitchell Englander, the PLUM committee member who proposed the billboard amnesty.  Englander claimed that enforcement attempts would be futile and embroil the city in lengthy, expensive litigation by billboard companies.

Englander isn’t an attorney and he didn’t say whether he based this contention on conversations with the City Attorney’s office or private threats by billboard company lawyers. But the City Attorney’s latest letter makes clear that he didn’t seek that office’s advice before proposing the amnesty.

The other PLUM committee members, chairman Jose Huizar and Councilman Gil Cedillo, didn’t question Englander’s remarks at the Dec. 16 meeting.  Lamar Advertising, the company with the largest number of unpermitted and illegally altered billboards, is currently displaying free billboard ads throughout Huizar’s district urging support for the councilman in the March 3 primary election.

Englander has also gotten free billboard advertising from Louisiana-based Lamar, even though he has no opposition in his re-election campaign. Cedillo isn’t up for re-election until 2017, but he got significant free billboard advertising in his 2013 campaign.

In his letter to the Plum committee, Bostrom makes note of an obscure state law that deems a billboard lawful if no enforcement action has been taken within the preceding five years. But he stresses that this presumption is “rebuttable,” meaning that the city can take enforcement action if it can prove that signs were in violation of laws at the time of erection, or were altered later in a manner that violated the city’s sign code.

Bostrom says in the letter that there is “no reason that the City cannot initiate enforcement actions with respect to the 391 structures that are not in compliance with their permits.” As for the 546 billboard structures without any permits on file, Bostrom says, “A careful inspection of each sign, coupled with a careful review of the City’s historic billboard regulations, could yield information demonstrating that at least some of these signs were not lawfully erected.”

Potential remedies, Bostrom writes, include not only removal of the sign or the illegal sign face, but penalties of up to $2,500 per day, as provided by the city’s Municipal Code.

An interactive map of illegal billboards and their distribution throughout the city by council district can be seen on the L.A. Times website by clicking here.

Dennis Hathaway

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