L.A.’s New Sign Ordinance: Democracy (In)action

PLUM committee members, from left; Mitchell Englander, Ed Reyes, Jose Huizar

PLUM committee members, from left; Mitchell Englander, Ed Reyes, Jose Huizar

On Jan. 22, 2009, the president of the L.A. City Planning Commission gaveled to order a meeting in which the major agenda item was an extensive revision of the ordinance regulating billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising in the city. On Dec. 4, 2012, after numerous public meetings and further revisions by city planners, that ordinance was before members of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management committee, fully vetted by the City Attorney’s office and ready to be voted upon.

What happened? Without acknowledging the fact that numerous persons had written the committee and others had come to the meeting to urge passage of the ordinance, chairman Ed Reyes announced that there would be no vote and that further consideration of the ordinance would be postponed until the meeting of Jan. 22, 2013.

Why this delay? Reyes and committee member Mitchell Englander briefly addressed it, but calling what they said an explanation would be giving them too much credit. Englander spoke of the need to go over the ordinance line-by-line as if he’d never seen it before, and Reyes mentioned unresolved issues even though the committee had unanimously voted almost a year earlier to send the ordinance to the City Attorney to be put into final legal form.

Things are rarely obvious in City Hall when it comes to issues of billboards and signage, but the fog around these sign ordinance dealings isn’t thick enough to conceal the sight of Clear Channel lobbyists prowling City Council members’ offices to promote a deal to save the digital billboards that recent court rulings have put into extreme jeopardy. And it’s not hard to imagine that those lobbyists, among their numbers lawyers from the city’s largest and most influential law firms, have eyed the sign ordinance as a place to insert such a deal.

It’s also easy to imagine that those same lobbyists have already worked out the nuts and bolts of a deal, right down to the proper legal language. Although details haven’t been made public, it’s clear that the centerpiece of an agreement with the city to “re-permit” the 100 digital billboards now operating would be an unspecified amount of money flowing from the billboard companies to the city’s treasury. It would surely mean more digital billboards as well, since the city would have to extend the very lucrative privelege to have digital billboards to companies other than Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor, which own all the digital billboards now in operation.

How an agreement of this sort could be fitted into the citywide sign ordinance isn’t clear, although the ordinance would almost surely have to be sent back to the City Attorney’s office for vetting of the new language. And that would mean more delay, which is anathema to the interests of those fighting digital billboards and other forms of sign blight.

The sign ordinance the public was led to believe would be voted on last month doesn’t include everything that numerous community organizations and neighborhood councils have weighed in on┬áto date. However, it does contain protections that need to be implemented as soon as possible to protect the city’s visual environment from being degraded by digital signage and other outdoor advertising signs. Among the most important are:

-Limiting off-site digital signage such as billboards to special sign districts, where they can be strictly regulated to avoid negative affects on residential neighborhoods and traffic. These sign districts would be limited to intensive commercial areas such as large shopping and entertainment centers, thus precluding digital billboards from appearing on regular commercial streets.

-Prohibiting signage such as large supergraphic banners and wall and fence wraps advertising commercial products and services in city parks and recreation areas.

-Increasing penalties for maintaining illegal signs to a level that can serve as a real deterrant to companies tempted by large profits to cover buildings with supergraphic signs or maintain billboards that were put up or altered without permits.

-Requiring new off-site signage in sign districts to be offset by the removal of existing billboards from the surrounding communities, thus reducing neighborhood blight.

In addition to Clear Channel’s fervent desire to preserve their digital billboards, the billboard companies want looser restrictions on sign districts, lower penalties, and the ability to market products and services on public property. Every delay in passing the sign ordinance in its present form works to their advantage, not the least of which relates to the big profits generated from digital billboards.

Dennis Hathaway

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