Just Say No: L.A. Planning Commission Doesn’t Like Amnesty, More Digital Billboards, Grandfathering

A City Council committee has proposed "amnesty" for billboards like this double-faced Clear Channel sign, which has a permit for only one face.

A City Council committee has proposed “amnesty” for billboards like this double-faced Clear Channel sign, which has a permit for only one face, according to city records.

(Update:  The commission on Oct. 22 unanimously approved the ordinance with no amnesty and the restriction of digital billboards to sign districts in high intensity commercial areas..  It also increased the billboard takedown ratio from one to one to 5 to 1 for new conventional signs and 10 to 1 for digitals. )

The hearts of anti-billboard folk had to be warmed by last month’s Los Angeles City Planning Commission meeting, where commissioners cast a jaundiced eye on proposals to grant amnesty to illegal billboards, allow new digital billboards outside sign districts, and exempt more than a dozen “applied-for” sign districts from the new, stricter regulations in the pending citywide sign ordinance.

The proposal to grant amnesty to almost 1,000 billboards either lacking permits or altered in violation permits, made earlier this year by City Councilman Mitch Englander and approved by the council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee, drew the most withering comments from commissioners.

Dana Perlman said he could see no good reason to “bless and stamp” illegal billboards, while Robert Ahn said the city should be putting the “onus” on billboard owners. Rene Dake-Wilson said she was “outraged” that the city hadn’t been enforcing the law against illegal billboards since their existence has been known for a number of years.

The idea of grandfathering a toal of 14 “applied-for” sign districts, many of which have undergone little or no processing by the city, also failed the commission’s smell test. Dake-Wilson called it “spot zoning” for sign districts, and commission president David Ambroz asked senior city planner Tom Rothmann to explain the public policy benefit of allowing these proposed sign districts to avoid the more stringent regulations in the new ordinance. Rothmann replied that he could not articulate any such benefit.

On the subject of allowing new digital billboards outside sign districts, either through a conditional use permit process or only on public property in exchange for the takedown of conventional billboards, the commission’s response was somewhat more muted. Most commissioners expressed skepticism about the CUP process, but several wanted more information about the public property-only option first proposed last month by City Councilman Paul Krekorian.

Concerns were voiced, however, about allowing digital billboards in high-visibility locations such as freeways. Perlman raised the issues of potential driver distraction and light pollution from the presence of these brightly-lighted signs with their rapidly-changing ads. While the Krekorian proposal would require four square feet of billboard space to be taken down in exchange for one square foot of new digital billboard, Ambroz said he would like to see a takedown ratio of eight to one if the city decides to proceed.

The commission originally approved the new sign ordinance in 2009, but it was returned for review because of the subsequent amendments added by the PLUM committee. The current commissioners, none of whom were on the commission in 2009, didn’t take a vote on the measure but continued the matter until Oct. 22.

Dennis Hathaway

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