Digital Billboards: Planning Commission Says NO, Council Committee Says YES

L.A. City Council PLUM committee, from left: Jose Huizar, Mitchell Englander, Gil Cedillo, Felipe Fuentes, Marqueece Harris-Dawson

L.A. City Council PLUM committee, from left: Jose Huizar, Mitchell Englander, Gil Cedillo, Felipe Fuentes, Marqueece Harris-Dawson

Despite the unanimous opposition of the City Planning Commission, an L.A. City Council committee is pushing ahead with a plan that could ultimately result in new digital billboards going up in a wide area of the city.

Last fall, the planning commission approved a new citywide sign ordinance that restricts the brightly-lighted signs with rapidly changing ads to special sign districts in a limited number of high-intensity commercial areas. At a meeting this week, the council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee turned a cold shoulder to that idea, and directed three city departments to jointly develop detailed proposals for allowing the currently prohibited signs outside those restricted areas, either on city-owned property or on both public and private property.

Committee chairman Jose Huizar said these proposals need to include revenue sharing to the city, funding for sign law enforcement, and the removal of billboards blighting various neighborhoods. This is an about-face from 2015, when Huizar was running for re-election and his answer to a candidates’s questionnaire seemed to support restricting digital billboards to sign districts.

Committee members Felipe Fuentes and Marqueece Harris-Dawson both complained that the City Planning Commission’s restriction of new digital billboards to sign districts wouldn’t result in the removal of billboard blight from their districts, in the east San Fernando Valley and South L.A., respectively.

The ordinance approved by the planning commission requires that new digital billboards in sign districts be offset by the takedown of existing billboards in surrounding communities at a square footage ratio of ten to one. In that ordinance, sign districts are only allowed in 22 areas of the city zoned regional center or regional commercial, such as downtown, Universal City, Warner Center, LAX, Century City, and the Coliseum/USC area, among others.

There are no sign district-eligible areas in Fuentes’s district, but there are two in an adjacent district, in Van Nuys and Panorama City. The ordinance approved by the planning commission doesn’t limit the required billboard takedown to a specific distance from a sign district, and commissioners discussed expanding the takedown area to the entire city, although that provision wasn’t included in the final version of the ordinance.

At the committee meeting, Harris-Dawson called many of the existing billboards in his district “a big, giant sore thumb.” That district includes a sizeable sign district-eligible area in the Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Plaza commercial area, and under the planning commission’s ordinance a new full-size digital billboard could be put up there only if 10 full-size billboards or a larger number of smaller billboards were first removed in the surrounding community.

Neither Fuentes or Harris-Dawson mentioned the fact that a city survey has shown that more than a hundred billboards in those councilmembers’ districts have either been erected or altered without required permits. In a letter to the PLUM committee last year, City Attorney Mike Feuer said his office was ready to help take enforcement action against many billboards across the city that fall into that category, but to date the committee members haven’t responded to that offer.

There was little discussion by committee members about the city’s prospect of getting revenue from new digital billboards, although that’s been a central point of a vigorous lobbying campaign by a coalition of billboard companies that want to put up an untold number of new digital billboards along freeways and city streets. That coalition includes the three largest billboard operators in the city—Clear Channel, Outfront Media, and Lamar Advertising.

Councilmember Paul Krekorian has put forth a proposal to allow new digital billboards on city-owned property in exchange for a share of revenue and the takedown a certain number of existing billboards, but the councilmember’s proposal leaves details such as the exact number of new billboards and their locations to be worked out.

Councilman Gil Cedillo, a PLUM committee member, floated a proposal two years ago to allow new digital billboards in any commercial area through a conditional use permit process. And Clear Channel, which owns 84 digital billboards that have been shut off by court order since 2013, has pushed for city permission to relocate some of those billboards, ostensibly to locations where they aren’t as likely to generate complaints from nearby residential neighborhoods.

All those proposals got a firm thumbs down from the planning commission, whose members agreed that any digital signs should be restricted to sign districts where their size, brightness, and hours of operation could be strictly regulated to minimize potential traffic hazards, light pollution, and adverse affects on surrounding residential neighborhoods..

The major billboard companies have long opposed these restrictions, and while none have publicly commented on Krekorian’s proposal, it’s unlikely that they are happy with the prospect of being allowed new digital billboards only on a limited number of properties owned by the city.

In fact, Lamar Advertising sued the city in 2013 for the right to put up 45 new digital billboards in specific locations in a wide area of the city. The Louisiana-based company won a favorable ruling from a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, but the California Appeals Court overturned that ruling earlier this year, upholding the city’s right to ban those signs.

Another 2014 proposal, by committee member Mitchell Englander, called for granting “amnesty” to all unpermitted and out-of-compliance billboards in the city, but there was no mention of it at this week’s meeting. The planning commission emphatically rejected the idea, calling instead for the city to begin enforcing the law against all illegal billboards.

Neither Englander nor Cedillo commented on the planning commission’s action during this week’s PLUM committee meeting. Both councilmembers, as well as Huizar, have received significant financial support from billboard companies in their past election campaigns. And Englander has gotten a number of campaign contributions from billboard companies and their lobbyists in his current bid for election in November to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

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Dennis Hathaway

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