The lawsuit settlement that gives Clear Channel, CBS and others the right to convert more than 800 conventional billboards to digital explicitly exempts these conversions from any zoning regulations. The single-page settlement agreement approved in 2006 by the city council makes no mention of this exemption, but the 40-page document later filed with the L.A. County Superior Court includes the following:
“…with the exception of the construction of new second faces…no modernization or re-permitting for an existing structure shall be denied based on zoning regulations. “
“Modernization” is the term the settlement uses for digital conversions and other alterations, such as the addition of second faces. The court document goes on to say:
“Permits and work approvals for Modernizations will not be denied or withheld, and the use of Modernizations will not be restricted, based on any other prohibition of the Los Angeles Municipal code which…is not directly and predominately related to “Structural or Electrical Safety” (i.e., sturdiness of building materials, wind resistance, methods of attachment, electrical safety, and earthquake safety.”
In other words, a billboard can be converted to digital even if it violates multiple regulations now in the city sign ordinance regarding such things as height and location, as well as restrictions included in special zoning areas like specific plans, community design overlays, pedestrian oriented districts, and others.
Did the city council understand what it was doing? Probably not, given the recent reactions by some members to growing outrage over the spread of the digital billboards in city neighborhoods. One said he didn’t foresee the negative effects of the billboards, while another blamed City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo for pressuring them into approving the settlement.
Council members were apparently unaware of another fact. Just five months earlier the California Appeals Court had ruled that a city could not grant exceptions or make changes to its zoning ordinances through a lawsuit settlement agreement reached behind closed doors. In that case, Trancas Property Owners Assn. v City of Malibu, the court said, “We hold that the agreement, however well-intended, was invalid, because it impermissibly attempted to abrogate the city’s zoning authority and provisions.” And just a year after the L.A. City Council approval the lawsuit settlement, the federal appeals court reached the same conclusion in another case, League of Residential Neighborhood Advocates v. City of Los Angeles, saying, in part, “…the pendency of litigation is not a blank check for a city when it comes to the rights of its residents.”