Long-Awaited Citywide Billboard Inspections to Begin in February: But Will Billboard Companies Sue to Stop It?

Almost seven years after the L.A. City Council voted to conduct a block-by-block survey and inspection of the estimated 10,000 billboards in city, the Department and Building and Safety is proposing to start the program on Feb. 1 next year.  Whether or not this actually happens is open to question, though, because an assistant City Attorney has said that he expects billboard companies to go to court to challenge whatever fee the city decides to levy to pay for the program.

And what is that fee the deep-pocketed billboard companies might find so onerous?  The building department proposes to charge $186 per billboard structure for a three-year inspection period.  This would pay for three field inspectors to conduct the actual survey and enter the information into a billboard database, plus a supervising inspector and a clerk.  The information gathered would be compared to permit documents submitted by the billboard companies, and any billboards erected or altered illegally would be ordered taken down or brought into compliance with their permits.

The four companies that sued in 2002 to stop the program–Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, Regency Outdoor, and Vista Media–have already agreed to the fee in a 2006 lawsuit settlement.  According to inventories submitted by the city, the four companies own 6,581 signs, which leaves an estimated 3,500 signs owned by other companies that would be covered by the latest proposal.

What will the inspectors actually be doing in the field, to complete a process estimated to take 2.7 years?  According to Frank Bush, chief inspector of the Code Enforcement Bureau, inspectors will be “measuring the distance from the property lines to the sign structure; setting up a measuring device to determine the height and size of the sign; actually measuring the height and size of each structure; logging the measurements; comparing the actual measurements against information on a permit or documentation supplied by the sign company; and inspecting each sign structure in terms of code compliance for structural safety and adequacy of the electrical installations for lighted signs.”

What if billboard companies fail to provide copies of their permits?  In that case the department will research its own records, for which it will bump the fee for the three-year inspection period to $342.  Why so much for a minor task?  The answer, apparent to anyone who has attempted on their own to comb through records in search of billboard permit information, is that it’s not minor at all, but a daunting, often frustrating job.

Bush says as much in a detailed memo laying out the proposed terms of the inspection program:

“Locating relevant permits is a tedious and time-consuming process. Not all billboards have been assigned their own separate and distinct address. Some billboards have been assigned a separate address based upon historical practices for the convenience of the Department of Water and Power and other purposes to allow for billing and a dedicated electrical meter to the billboard company. Many other billboards have permits indexed to the address of the property on which they were initially constructed, which address often changed over time as areas developed and lots were split. Many others have permits indexed to a commercial development address which includes dozens and possibly hundreds of permits in cases where the billboard is constructed upon a large commercial property or mini-shopping center. Thus, to locate a billboard permit LADBS must frequently search permits over a range of addresses.

“To view actual permits a BMI [note: inspector] must physically pull the corresponding microfilm reels,  search the reel for the permit desired and review the permit to determine whether it relates to the sign structure in question. Assuming that the correct permit is located, the information on the permit (type of sign, dimensions, single or double face, orientation, sign location and plot plan) must be interpreted. Often, the information is handwritten and the record of poor quality. This information can now be compared with the field conditions and any differences noted. These decisions must be made in order to decide if violations exist and whether to issue any enforcement orders for code violations.”

The fees and related approvals for hiring inspectors now go to the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee and then to the full City Council.  Will this program which was a critical adjunct to the city’s 2002 ban on new billboards actually get underway in February?  Will the billboard companies sue and tie it up in court for another half dozen years, in the meantime putting up digital billboards and enjoying other concessions handed them by the 2006 lawsuit settlement?

Stay tuned.

Read the Sign Inspection and Fee Proposal

Dennis Hathaway

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