New City Sign Ordinance to Be Voted on By the City Planning Commission: The Good, the Bad, the Missing


Type of Digital Billboard That Would Be Banned By New Ordinance

First the good news: The sign ordinance expected to be voted on by the City Planning Commission (CPC) on March 18 retains the 2002 ban on any new billboards and other forms of off-site signs;  prohibits digital signs, including conversions of existing conventional billboards, bans those huge “supergraphics” covering windows on entire walls of buildings, and puts in place tough new fines designed to deter companies from putting up the illegal signs that are increasingly blighting the city’s visual landscape.

The bad news-or not-so-good news, depending upon your point of view-is that off-site signs and digital signs could still be allowed in “Sign Districts” that meet certain criteria, and those supergraphics could still appear on blank walls under certain conditions.  The ordinance also creates a potential loophole in the form of “Comprehensive Sign Programs” that could result in larger and more intrusive signage, and in a worst-case scenario even off-site signage, in large commercial projects.

The current city sign ordinance bans off-site signs generally, but allows exceptions in sign districts, specific plan areas, and projects constructed under an approved development agreement with the city.  Last year, a federal court judge ruled that this broad discretion to allow exceptions rendered the ban unconstitutional as applied to supergraphic signs put up by a company called World Wide Rush, and has since broadened the ruling to include supergraphic signs erected by two other companies.

The new ordinance removes the provision to allow off-site signs in specific plan areas and pursuant to development agreements.  And it makes the criteria for establishing a sign district considerably more restrictive, although nobody really knows if this will satisfy the courts.  (The city has appealed the World Wide Rush ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but a decision isn’t expected for at least a year.)  These restrictions would not allow sign districts to abut single-family neighborhoods, and would require findings that the sign district would not create negative impacts such as light pollution and traffic and pedestrian hazards.

The most serious problem with sign districts is that in essence they hand sign companies and property owners an entitlement for off-site signs with their potential for huge amounts of revenue, but fail to require a commensurate community benefit in return.  The ordinance requires a “sign reduction” program if the proposed sign district is characterized by excessive signage, or a “community beautification” program if it is not, but does not offer any language as to what would actually constitute such programs.  Removal of an old rusty billboard in exchange for thousands of square feet of digital and supergraphic signage?  Some tree plantings and park benches?

Sign districts could only be established in areas designated in the city’s community plans as “regional center” or “regional commercial.”  There are now 20 such areas city-wide, but since a process of updating the city’s 35 community plans was recently initiated, it is conceivable that more such areas could be designated.  The city council also has the power to change or add such designations, and given the pressure brought to bear by developers thirsty for the revenue to be had from off-site signage, it’s not hard to imagine that happening, although any such changes would require a series of public hearings.

This vision of development interests lobbying city politicians to get more advertising signage in their projects is especially troublesome when it comes to the proposed comprehensive sign programs.  No prohibited sign types such as off-site or digital would be allowed in these large commercial developments, but on-site signs could be larger and greater in number than those allowed elsewhere in the city.  Once these signs are in place, it’s not farfetched to imagine developers and property owners going to politicians to try to get their areas designed regional centers and eligible for a sign district that in turn would allow those on-site signs to start displaying off-site advertising.

Another disturbing element of all this is that seven applications for sign districts are currently pending before the city, and the new ordinance proposes to allow these applications to proceed under existing, more relaxed regulations.  In other words, the city will be allowed to exercise broad discretion to allow off-site signage in these districts even though that discretion was cited by the federal court as the reason why the city cannot enforce its off-site ban.   And in fact, one of these proposed sign districts, for the Midtown Crossing shopping center, has just been scheduled for public hearing by the planning department.  What’s going on here?  If you repeatedly burn your fingers, shouldn’t you stop playing with matches?

There are many other details in the new ordinance, pertaining to on-site signs, temporary signs, and signs in residential areas, among others.  To read the latest draft and its supplemental report, go to the Department of City Planning website and click on Plans & Ordinances, proposed ordinances, and Sign Code Revisions.  For detailed changes and additions proposed by the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, see Recommended Changes and Additions to Proposed City Sign Ordinance.

Dennis Hathaway

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