L.A. Sign Districts: Report Says Strict Criteria Needed To Avoid Legal Problems

Would this billboard in proposed sign district pass legal muster? (architect's rendering)

The elimination of visual blight and the enhancement of traffic safety are the only legally defensible criteria for establishing sign districts that allow new off-site, supergraphic, and other prohibited sign types in L.A., according to a new report issued by the Department of City Planning.  Should the city adopt new regulations strictly reflecting these criteria, sign districts proposed for downtown, the Universal City area, and elsewhere could prove much more difficult to establish.

The report, authored in conjunction with the City Attorney’s office and Department of Building and Safety, will be taken up by the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee on Dec. 6.  It also recommends action on other sign code revisions that it terms non-controversial, such as increasing penalties for sign code violators, allowing reconstruction of non-conforming historic signs, and setting a limit on the rate of message change for digital signs.

A comprehensive revision of the sign code was approved last year by the City Planning Commission and sent on to the PLUM committee, but action was postponed pending the outcome of a major sign company lawsuit against the city, and because a number of amendments were put forward by City Council members.  The way was cleared to take up the ordinance again when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier this year against a Pennsylvania sign company seeking the right put up large-scale supergraphic signs in violation of the citywide ban passed eight years ago.

According to the planning department report, the 9th Circuit’s ruling confirmed that the city may approve an exception to its bans “when the exception will result in either a reduction in visual blight or an improvement in traffic safety—the two considerations that, according to the court, are the City’s legal basis for its signage regulations.”   The current city sign ordinance allows these exceptions to be granted in sign districts, specific plan areas, or through approved development agreements.  However, the report recommends limiting those exceptions to sign districts only, in order to ensure the legal defensibility of the ordinance.

If the PLUM committee and City Council follow this advice, it is hard to see how some of the ten sign districts proposed to date could win approval.   One of the most controversial, proposed for the Wilshire Grand project downtown, envisions a massive amount of electronic and off-site signage incorporated into the exterior walls of two towers, 65 and 45 stories tall, clearly visible from the 110 freeway.  Another downtown project, the Grand Avenue redevelopment near City Hall, includes a sign district that Councilmember Jan Perry wants to “grandfather” even though no formal application with signage details has been submitted to the city.

In other areas of the city, the developers of the Midtown Crossing shopping center, the Metro Universal project and Panorama Place development the San Fernando Valley have proposed sign districts to allow off-site and supergraphic signage.

It is nearly impossible to imagine how thousands of square footage of advertising highly visible to motorists could be construed as enhancing traffic safety, which means that establishment of these sign districts would have to result in a reduction of visual blight.  This might possibly come through some kind of program of removing existing billboards in the surrounding community.

To read full planning department report, click here.

Dennis Hathaway

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