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Glendale Sign Law Wins Court Test

January 31, 1985|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court commissioner has ruled that Glendale's newly implemented sign ordinance does not violate the constitutional freedom of business owners.

In a suit filed against the city last April, insurance broker Bob New contended the ordinance violates his freedom of speech by controlling the size and type of advertising signs permitted in the city. New had been ordered to remove longstanding signs from his building because they do not conform to the ordinance.

New has fought a quixotic battle with the city for years over what he calls "nonsense regulations like the sign ordinance." He maintains that the "rightful place for government is to protect its citizens from crime and violence" and not control the "free moral actions of its citizens who paint a sign."

"I really don't care for my signs," New said. "But I am dedicated to a cause; that is to stand up for what I believe to be right."

But in the decision announced last week, Commissioner Florence-Marie Cooper of Glendale Superior Court found that cities have the right to control the size and type of signs permitted. She said provisions in Glendale's sign ordinance are "sufficiently broad" to permit city officials to consider "innumerable circumstances" under which a variance might be granted to retain a sign.

She also ruled, however, that taxpayers have the right to sue the city if they think provisions of the ordinance and procedures for granting a variance are unfair, even though they may not personally be affected by enforcement of the ordinance.

As a result, New, who had stalled enforcement of the sign ordinance for 10 years with a previous lawsuit, said he and other business owners may either appeal the court decision or seek new legal action against the city, which would be his third such suit.

The sign ordinance, designed to eliminate garishly lighted and oversized placards such as billboards and rooftop displays, was adopted in 1973. New filed legal action in 1975 to block the city from enforcing the ordinance. A jury could not reach a decision in that case, but the city subsequently decided to grant business owners until 1983 to phase out their non-conforming signs.

The city last year began ordering businesses to bring their signs into compliance. Many signs, including some that were considered to be historically significant, have been removed.

$500 a Day Fines Possible

New was ordered to remove a rooftop sign and two oversized wall signs from his offices at 736 N. Glendale Ave. They advertise his insurance, auto leasing and loan services. The city can impose fines of up to $500 per day per sign if business owners do not comply.

In a second suit filed last year, New challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance, again blocking removal of the signs on his building. Because of last week's court ruling, Assistant City Atty. Scott H. Howard said New will again be ordered to remove his signs.

The sign ordinance affects many businesses in Glendale.

One business, George Seeley Furniture Co., was granted a variance by the City Council in November to keep its bright rooftop sign, referred to as "the red beacon of Glendale." Members of the council said they wanted to preserve the sign because of its historical significance. The city has no provision to preserve signs for their significance, however, and a variance can be granted only if the city determines that forcing removal of a sign would create sufficient hardships on the owner.

In granting the variance to Seeley's business, the council cited only vague justifications for hardship, such as the necessity for the sign to be large to compete with auto dealer signs nearby.

Four of the six theaters in the city also have appealed for variances to permit them to keep marquees that are larger than permitted by the ordinance.

Zoning Administrator John McKenna on Jan. 25 granted variances to two of the theaters--the Capitol and the Roxy--allowing marquees larger than allowed by the ordinance. Nonetheless, both theaters agreed to significantly reduce the size of their signs, and the Roxy removed its large, shocking-pink neon rooftop sign.

2 Other Requests Pending

McKenna said he has made no determination on requests for variances by owners of the Alex and Glendale theaters, which have large, ornate marquees. Don Brown, a theater consultant, has argued that modification of marquees on those two theaters would be expensive and difficult because of their construction. The Alex, noted for its Greek Revival-style architecture and tall candle-like tower, is considered by many to be historically significant.

New, who vowed to continue his fight against the sign law, said, "The city has the right to use force to take away my freedom of expressions and I don't accept that. . . . That kind of control is an absurdity."

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