Should Digital Billboards Undergo Environmental Review? Building Department Says “No”, Council Members Say “Not So Fast”

The city of Los Angeles has been routinely exempting digital billboards from the review provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) despite the fact that these signs use far more energy than a conventional sign, subject people living nearby to intense, ever-changing light, and pose potential traffic hazards and congestion by distracting motorists.  The Department of Building and Safety has allowed billboard companies applying for permits to convert conventional billboards to digital to claim an exemption for CEQA on the grounds that the conversions are “minor alterations” of existing structures and involve “negligible or no expansion of use.”

The logic of this is akin to taking a painting off your living room wall and replacing it with a flat-screen TV, then saying you’ve made a minor alteration to your décor because the TV is the same size as the painting.  The argument that a digital billboard is actually a “major” alteration with definite environmental effects was raised earlier this year in an challenge the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight filed to the proposed conversion of a digital billboard on Ventura Blvd. in Encino.   But Clear Channel Outdoor withdrew their application at the last minute, and the South Valley Planning Commission did not vote on the issue.

Now the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee is scheduled to consider a motion to direct the Planning Department and Department of Building and Safety to determine whether the environmental impacts of digital billboards should be studied before permits are issued.  Authored by Councilman Jack Weiss and seconded by Councilmembers
Eric Garcetti, Bill Rosendahl, and Wendy Gruel, the committee will consider the motion on Tuesday, Oct. 14, at 2 p.m. in City Hall.

The motion states “It is imperative that the City evaluate and understand its ability to analyze environmental impacts associated with the digitization of existing billboards.”  The motion also calls upon the Department of Building and Safety to identify specific locations for permits both issued and pending and outline any relevant zoning regulations that may apply.

“Communities where modernizations are being installed have expressed a desire for a process to ensure notification before modernizations are complete and the opportunity to voice concerns about light and glare,  traffic hazards, aesthetic impacts, and other public safety and environmental impacts associated with the digitization of existing billboards,”  the motion says.

Permits for almost all digital conversions thus far have been issued on a “ministerial” basis, meaning that there is no notice to adjoining property owners or any public hearings, and residents have only known of the conversions when they’ve seen one suddenly appear in their neighborhood.  The challenge to the Ventura Blvd. conversion was only possible because the location fell within a “Specific Plan” zoning area, and the Director of Planning had to approve it before a permit could be issued by the building department.

See the Weiss Motion here.  For related information, see:

CEQA Exemption for Ventura Blvd. billboard

California Environmental Quality Act

Dennis Hathaway

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