Clear Channel Giving Up on Electronic Billboard? Stay Tuned

Has community opposition derailed Clear Channel’s plans for an electronic billboard on Ventura Blvd? Nine months after applying for a permit to convert the conventional billboard at 15826 Ventura Bld. to electronic, and just one day before a scheduled area planning commission hearing on an appeal against granting that permit, the company withdrew its application.
Activists who organized to oppose the so-called “modernization” that would replace the billboard with a brilliantly-lit LED display changing ads every eight seconds were left to express their opposition to commissioners with an empty slot on their agenda and nothing to vote on.

Is this a victory for the local community against the largest outdoor advertising company in the world? Nobody’s ready to declare that, including Matt Epstein, the president of the South Valley Area Planning Commission, who declared that the billboard issue “is not going to go away.”  So what’s next? Nobody really knows, although Clear Channel has been aggressively converting its conventional billboards to digital, with an estimated 40 now in operation. Most of these are the west side of L.A., on such streets as Olympic, Santa Monica, and Pico Blvds., near major upscale shopping areas.

Of course, this is just a trickle compared to the number allowed by a weak-kneed city council’s approval of a 2006 lawsuit settlement brokered by ethically-challenged City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo with Clear Channel, and other outdoor advertising companies. This settlement gives Clear Channel the right to convert 400 of its conventional billboards to digital, and the city’s building department has treated most permits for these conversions as “ministerial,” meaning that no public hearings are held and affected residents learn of the conversions only after seeing them out their windows at night or when driving down their local boulevards.

The Ventura Blvd. billboard was an exception because that street falls under one of the city’s specific plans, areas with special zoning regulations. This particular specific plan prohibits new billboards and any signs with moving images, in addition to calling for a reduction of sign clutter along the corridor. Despite this, Gail Goldberg, the city’s Director of Planning, issued a “determination” that the 14×48 ft. billboard should be permitted. Her decision included a finding that the billboard should be exempt from review under the California Evironmental Quality Act (CEQA), on the grounds that converting a conventional billboard to electronic would be a “minor” alteration without any significant impacts on the surrounding community.

How someone who has professed support for local community control of land-use decisions could arrive at such a bizarre conclusion is anyone’s guess. These digital billboards spill huge amounts of bright light into the night sky, sometimes forcing nearby residents to keep their shades drawn at all times. Many questions have been raised about their potential to distract drivers and negatively impact traffic safety, and some other states have declared moratoriums on them until this issue is thoroughly studied. And last, but far from least, they consume far more energy than a conventional billboard, nearly 50 times as much, according to a thorough study by a branch of the Green Building Council. So much for the city’s lip service to energy conservation.

But a victory is a victory, no matter how temporary, and without organized opposition by the community, this billboard would probably be operating already, helping to blight the visual landscape of Ventura Blvd. with yet another exhortation to buy products or services. So stay tuned, and be ready to write those letters, send those e-mails, and come to more hearings to speak in defense of public spaces and the right of the public to be protected from ever-more intrusive visual assaults.

For more information on this or other billboard and visual blight issues, contact info@banbillboardblight.org

Dennis Hathaway

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