Holiday Gift: L.A. Politicians Want More Digital Billboards

Westwood 8

Christmas came early for Clear Channel and other billboard companies when a Los Angeles City Council committee decided Tuesday to press forward with plans that could allow hundreds of new digital billboards throughout the city and grant “amnesty” to more than 1,300 billboards that are either unpermitted or in violation of their permits.

The three-member Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee appears ready to jettison the centerpiece of a new citywide sign ordinance first approved by the City Planning Commission back in 2009. That provision restricts new digital billboards and other off-site signage to sign districts that could only be established in a limited number of areas zoned for high-intensity commercial use, such as downtown, LAX, the harbor area, and other hubs of commerce and transport.

Lamar 2

The city has no permit on file for this double-sided Lamar Advertising billboard on Olympic Blvd. in West L.A.

Committee member Mitch Englander said that restricting digital billboards to sign districts amounted to a “do nothing” approach to the issue of regulating the brightly-lit signs with their rapidly-changing messages. He said the city should develop a plan to allow new digital billboards on public property or on a combination of public and private property in exchange for a share of revenue from the billboard companies. He also argued for granting a blanket amnesty to unpermitted and out-of-compliance billboards, saying it would save the city untold time and costs because billboard companies were certain to react to enforcement attempts with lawsuits.

Chairman Jose Huizar and member Gil Cedillo agreed with Englander, with Cedillo proposing a conditional use process to allow existing digital billboards to be relocated. Ninety-nine of those billboards, all of which are owned by Clear Channel and Outfront Media (formerly CBS Outdoor) have been out of operation since April, 2013, when a Superior Court judge ordered their permits revoked.

The committee’s actions followed a parade of public speakers representing business groups, non-profit organizations and labor unions. Many of the speakers read from prepared statements all making the arguments that the city should allow new digital billboards because the signs broadcast emergency messages, support good causes, and stimulate business activity and job growth. While representatives of L.A.’s major billboard companies—Clear Channel, Lamar Advertising, and Outfront Media (formerly CBS Outdoor)–were present, none addressed the committee.

The currently pending sign ordinance that restricts new billboards to sign districts in 23 areas zoned regional center or regional commercial, was written in response to legal concerns arising from lawsuits over allowing exceptions to the city’s 2002 ban on new off-site signs. The city’s right to allow these exceptions in sign districts was upheld in several federal court rulings, although the City Attorney’s office has warned that allowing too many exceptions could undermine the ban.

Members of the PLUM committee did not discuss the legal ramifications of allowing an untold number of new digital billboards on city streets outside sign districts. Instead, members mentioned the money that could flow into city coffers from revenue-sharing deals with billboard companies, and the jobs that could be created as a result of allowing the new billboards.

The committee also didn’t discuss the possible number of new digital billboards to be allowed or where they might be located. However, one of the city’s big three billboard companies, Lamar Advertising, just won a lower court ruling in a lawsuit to force the city to issue permits for 45 new billboards, and Clear Channel and Outfront Media currently own a total of 99 digital billboards turned off by court order. Other companies will ostensibly want a piece of the digital billboard pie as well, so the number could easily run into the hundreds.

The one detail discussed at some length was a provision in the pending sign ordinance that requires companies putting up new off-site signs in sign districts to remove conventional signs in the surrounding community. The current square footage ratio for this removal is one-to-one, with half of the requirement allowed to be offset by a community benefits program, such as streetscape enhancements like tree plantings, benches, and facade improvements.

Englander, whose council district in the west San Fernando Valley has by far the fewest billboards of any of the 15 council districts, said that the takedown requirement should be applied to new digital billboards both inside and outside sign districts, but with community benefits in addition to the one-to-one ratio. Prior to Englander’s statement, city planners had told the committee that other cities in the country allowing new digital billboards in exchange for revenue had required takedowns up to a ratio of four to one.

A new sign unit being established in the city planning department is expected to develop the details of allowing digital billboards and report to the committee sometime early next year.

After the court-ordered shutdown of the digital billboards last year, billboard companies led by Clear Channel mounted an extensive lobbying and PR effort to convince the public and politicians that the digital signs were a vital part of the city’s landscape.  That effort enlisted business groups, non-profits, labor unions and others that wield influence at City Hall, and Tuesday’s committee action appears to confirm that the effort paid off.

Dennis Hathaway

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.