Environmental impact reports--those government-mandated documents thick with graphs and statistics--have long been required for construction of housing tracts, sewers, industrial parks, dams and every other project that could possibly pose a threat to the natural order.
In what they say is one of the first such applications, Ventura County has required that a Los Angeles sign firm compile an EIR that addresses the visual impact of constructing two billboards along California 33, the scenic highway threading through the Ojai Valley.
More than $7,000 and 50 pages later, a consultant hired by the Patrick Media Group has concluded that the billboards would exert an "unmitigable visual impact" on the environment.
The finding was expected to be the focus of fierce debate Wednesday at a public hearing of the county's Environmental Report Review Committee.
The committee issues recommendations to the planning director, who can either rule on the matter or refer it to the Planning Commission for arbitration. Either side can then appeal to the Board of Supervisors.
While the concept of using EIRs to regulate billboards is a new one, James Caruso, a Ventura County planner, says the idea has generated some interest in Agoura Hills and Calabasas, two areas of Los Angeles County where there is a continuing battle against billboard proliferation.
The EIR issue also has elicited some barbed comments in Ventura County.
"It's overkill. They ask people to do EIRs for factories that produce toxic substances," fumes Patrick Media spokesman Richard Wannenmacher.
First Time Required
Patrick Media has put up about 6,000 billboards in Southern California and had never before been asked to compile such a report, Wannenmacher says.
"It's necessary," maintains Joan Kus, Ojai's director of planning and building. She says tourists who use California 33 as a gateway to Ojai's famed music festivals, sulfur baths, bookstores and restaurants don't want their views blighted by towering signs.
"When you're interested in a natural experience you don't want to have it interrupted by something like a billboard," Kus says. "It's not going to be very good for our image."
Ojai city officials aren't the only ones to speak out against the billboards. A countywide group called the Highway 33 Visual Impact Committee also is concerned. The county has asked that Caltrans designate California 33 a scenic highway, a designation that committee members say could be impeded if the county sanctions more billboards.
Frank McDevitt, Ojai's mayor, says the city has fought garish signs for years. Billboards are outlawed in Ojai and signs of all kinds are limited to earth tones and small dimensions.
Signs Called Ugly
McDevitt calls the proposed billboards ugly and says the Ojai corridor doesn't need "great big signage all over the place"--even "signage" that would advertise Ojai businesses.
Of the five billboards already in place, three predate a 1984 county law that regulates them and two are permitted by court order until the early 1990s, Caruso said.
"We know we've already got billboard blight down there," says Steve Olsen, Ojai's mayor pro tem and a member of the Highway 33 Visual Impact Committee.
"But we're saying we don't want any more."