Citywide Sign Ordinance: A Struggle Looms

by Patrick Frank

Public safety, aesthetics, and the will of the people continue to get short shrift at the City Council Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee, as it caves to the powerful billboard lobby. After years of hearings and reports, the committee on May 31 gave instructions to the City Attorney to finally draft a new Citywide Sign Ordinance that will govern billboards, known legally as off-site signs (Council File 11-1705). We should all enjoy the dark night skies while we can, because if this bill becomes a law, digital billboards will be going up in all kinds of new places, flashing messages in our faces every 8 seconds.

The committee was working from a draft bill devised by the City Planning Commission (CPC) in late 2015. That draft was a fair compromise between billboard companies, advertisers,  and citizens’ rights to a livable and safe visual environment: It permitted digital billboards only in sign districts located in high-intensity commercial zones. Moreover, a company that wanted to erect a digital billboard it had to take down ten times that square footage in traditional static billboards elsewhere. There was no provision for amnesty for any of the 900-plus static billboards in L.A. that lack effective permits.

That was then. PLUM has turned the CPC recommendations into something unrecognizable. Digital billboards would be permitted both within sign districts and outside them, in any land use zone that includes the word “Commercial,” which would take in most major streets and intersections. The approval process would be through the relatively loose Conditional Use Permit. Instead of a 10:1 takedown ratio, PLUM would institute a sliding scale, from 2:1 to a maximum of 8:1. The difference in each case would come from contributions by sign companies to city-run fund: they could pay more in order to take down less.

The PLUM committee calls this kitty a Billboard Blight Reduction fund, which is deeply ironic. The fees for each billboard would be paid once, but the billboard would reap profits for the company for decades. In effect, PLUM is selling your eyeballs. While the fund is meant to help pay for street improvements, the tradeoff is too great a price to pay for things which the city could and should fund itself through an appropriations process.

There are other plums in this pie for billboard companies. PLUM for the first time introduced language to permit digital on-site signage. This is a new subject worthy of an open and transparent conversation with stakeholders from all communities, as new digital signage on storefronts would radically alter community character in many neighborhoods. There has never been any discussion about a policy to permit digital on-site signs and, in fact, CPC intentionally separated the policy discussions of off-site and on-site signage. PLUM also included a provision to allow digital billboards on city-owned property. In sum, the PLUM instructions would allow digital signs both on businesses and on billboards located almost anywhere a sign company might like to have them.

Besides the obvious aesthetic arguments against digital billboards, a growing number of studies have shown that they contribute heavily to driver distraction and accidents. Thus, this ordinance flies in the face of Vision Zero, the city’s new program for reducing traffic fatalities.

Lurking behind this proposed legislation is a bushel of campaign contributions. Billboard companies in the past have given free advertising space to several of the PLUM committee members (Huizar, Englander, and Harris-Dawson) in support of their election campaigns, and cash contributions to all. In gratitude, PLUM members have practically jumped into their pockets. The final bill will be unveiled sometime this fall.

The CPC, probably shocked at what their legislative proposal has become at PLUM, revoked its delegation of the bill in late July. A highly unusual step in city government, this means that whatever PLUM does will have to go back to the CPC for comment and approval. So this struggle is a long way from over.

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