Phoenix Rising: Long-Dormant L.A. Sign Ordinance Coming Back To the Table

Members of City Council Planning and Land Use Management Committee, from left, chairman Ed Reyes; Jose Huizar; Paul Krekorian

Almost exactly two years ago, the City Planning Commission (CPC) approved a new sign ordinance that prohibited digital signs and greatly limited the city’s ability to grant exceptions to its existing ban on off-site and supergraphic signage.  For various reasons, that ordinance never reached the City Council floor, but now it appears that the council committee where it languished unseen but not forgotten will finally take it up again.

Before speculating upon what might emerge from this hibernation, a little history is in order.  In 2008, a federal court judge ruled that a company called World Wide Rush could put up its supergraphic signs wherever it wanted and the city couldn’t stop it.  That led to a land rush of sorts, with other companies slapping up the multi-story mesh and vinyl signs and suing the city when they were cited for violating the aforementioned ban, which was enacted back in 2002 with much fanfare about stopping the spread of billboards and other forms of outdoor advertising.

At the same time, Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor had been busily converting static billboards to digital, which they were allowed to do under terms of a 2006 lawsuit settlement brokered by then-City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, whose apparent blindness to ethical conflicts—his initial campaign for the office benefited from hundreds of thousands in free billboard advertising from those same companies—has helped sink his further political aspirations.

As soon as those billboards started appearing, without any public notice or hearings, without any review for their compliance with local zoning regulations, people started getting upset, particularly those whose homes and apartments were invaded by the bright, ever-changing light from the ad rotations, and those who saw how distracting they were to drivers on busy streets.   When one of the billboards appeared in a quiet neighborhood in Council President Eric Garcetti’s district, the creaky wheels of government started turning, resulting in a moratorium on any new off-site signage that took effect on Dec. 26, close enough to Christmas to qualify as a gift to people who had initially been dismissed as nimbys and complainers who habitually object to even the most minor changes in their neighborhoods.

Jack Weiss, a council member running for City Attorney and heavy favorite until an unknown attorney named Carmen Trutanich started gaining on him,  pushed for the adoption of a new sign ordinance that would pass court muster and stop the spread of supergraphic signs and digital billboards.  A hurry-up process led to three public hearings in January and February of 2009, and the final adoption of the ordinance by the CPC on March 18.  It addressed all signage in the city, off-site as well as business signs, but once it reached the next stop, the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) committee, it became clear that it was in trouble.

After some 19 amendments were proposed, most by Weiss, who was a member of the PLUM committee, it was decided that the new city attorney, whoever that would prove to be after the May election, should be able to weigh in on the ordinance before any action was taken.  Whether or not that reason carried more weight than the fact that business interests looked at new limits on on-site signage, peered into their crystal balls and saw a total collapse of business as Los Angeles knows it, is open to question.  In any event, the ordinance which had just attempted to bring L.A.’s very liberal on-site sign regulations into line with other big cities like Chicago and New York was put on the shelf in late spring of 2009, and has remained there ever since.

And what’s likely to happen now that PLUM committee chairman Ed Reyes appears ready to bring the ordinance back to the table?  For one, the on-site regulations so loathed by the business community will probably be dropped.  After all, bigger signs mean more business, or so the sign companies argue, and with L.A.’s high unemployment rate and reputation—deserved or not—as anti-business, politicians can find it easy to leave those regulations alone.

Of most concern to community activists and others alarmed by a relentless push to get more advertising in the public’s view were two things.  The sign districts that had allowed a proliferation of legal off-site signage, and enforcement against illegal signage.

While many would have preferred that the provision allowing digital and other generally prohibited sign types in sign districts be eliminated altogether, the ordinance that came out of the CPC greatly limited the areas where sign districts could be established, and enacted a takedown provision meaning that those new signs couldn’t go up without the removal of billboards at a greater than one to one ratio in the surrounding communities.  The ordinance also set administrative penalties for violations of the ordinance, stiff enough to act as deterrents to companies and property owners thinking of putting up illegal signs and reaping big profits with little cost.

Much of the fervor to get rid of illegal signs has eased, due to aggressive legal action by Trutanich and his deputies against sign scofflaws.   And in late 2009, a judge ruled that Delgadillo’s sweetheart settlement allowing digital billboards was illegal.  That ruling is currently pending appeal in a higher court, but the spread of digital billboards has stopped, with 100 now in operation and no more anticipated, at least in the immediate future.  The appetite for sign districts with lots of digital signs and off-site advertising hasn’t abated though, with proposals for new districts downtown and in other areas of the city in various stages of the city’s entitlement process.

The PLUM committee will likely hear from development interests who believe limits on sign districts will be hazardous to their activities, as well as lobbyists for the sign companies with a vested interest in more, not less, signage.  Reyes was on the PLUM committee when the sign ordinance first arrived, as was member Jose Huizar.  But Weiss is now a private citizen, his committee seat occupied by Paul Krekorian.

And the billboard companies?  They haven’t been sitting on their hands the past two years.  In the just concluded city election, CBS Outdoor put up free billboard advertising for Huizar, and Lamar Advertising donated billboard space to Krekorian, as well as three other City Council incumbents running for re-election.

A committee hearing on the ordinance hasn’t yet been scheduled, but the city planning department is reportedly working on a recommendation report to present to the committee next month.

For an analysis of the new ordinance, click here.  For the full text of the existing and proposed ordinances, click here.

Dennis Hathaway

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