The major developments on the billboard front in 2014 came near the end of the year, with a major court ruling and a move by a city council committee, both of which could have devastating effects on efforts to control billboard blight. Here’s what happened:
On Dec. 16, the day before the City Council went into its three-week holiday recess, the council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee brought up the revised citywide sign ordinance that has been the subject of 16 public hearings dating back almost six years without being adopted into law. Once again, the three-member committee postponed a vote on the measure that restricts any new off-site and digital billboards to special sign districts in a limited number of high-intensity commercial areas. But before that, committee members directed city planners to draw up plans to allow new digital billboards on public and private property outside sign districts. This idea, which Clear Channel and other billboard companies have been strenuously lobbying for, raises the spectre of hundreds of the brightly-lighted signs with rapidly changing ads on freeways and commercial streets throughout the city. Needless to say, those who supported the new sign district restriction as a reasonable exception to the city’s off-site sign ban and have been urging passage of the ordinance since 2009 were highly disappointed. Committee member Mitchell Englander also proposed that all current billboards that either lack permits or are out of compliance with their permits be granted amnesty, which also dismayed community members who have long worked to get rid of these billboards or force them into compliance.
Three years ago residents and others alarmed by the spread of commercial advertising in the city’s visual landscape breathed a sign of relief when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city’s 2002 ban on new off-site signs (billboards and other signs advertising goods and services not available on that site) was constitutional. This past fall that relief turned to trepidation, however, when Los Angeles County Superior Judge Luis A. Lavin threw the ban out on the grounds that it violated the California constitution. In his ruling, Judge Lavin observed that he was “neither required nor inclined” to the follow the federal court precedent. In another curious turn of logic, Judge Lavin equated the threat to aesthetics and traffic safety of billboards on private property to the city-allowed street banners on public property, even though a standard billboard is 672 sq. ft. while street banners cannot be more than 24 sq. ft. And finally, Judge Lavin’s ruling stated that the the plaintiff, Lamar Advertising, wanted to convert some of its conventional billboards to digital when the company’s court filings clearly indicate that it was suing for the right to put up 45 brand new, full-size digital billboards. City Attorney Mike Feuer is appealing this ruling, so the issue likely won’t be settled for several years.Dennis Hathaway