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Highway Signs Disrupt City Harmony, Scenery : A lawsuit that seeks to protect certain roadside advertising is putting pressure on Agoura Hills officials who want to project a different image of their city for motorists.

July 03, 1994|FRAN PAVLEY | Fran Pavley is a member of the Agoura Hills City Council. and

Agoura Hills--truck stop or gateway to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area?

Which image to project to the driving public has become the focus of my city's longstanding effort to clean up the view from U.S. 101. It has recently entered a new phase with the filing of a lawsuit to protect the giant "pole signs" that intrude on the landscape around Kanan Road.

Our experience shows that intransigent interests can make progress needlessly difficult but tenacity can finally pay off. We haven't reached all our goals, but we're getting there.

Once merely a stop for fuel and food between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Agoura Hills is now a family oriented city of more than 20,000 residents. We take pride in our neighborhoods, clean air, good schools, low crime rate--and scenic hillsides. Dramatic Ladyface Mountain is the dominant natural feature.

Since we incorporated in 1982, residents and the City Council have sought to replace big eyesores--billboards and the elephantine pole signs--with small signs equally useful for motorists. The council's goal is to attract new businesses, increase property values and enhance our tax base by improving the "truck stop" image of our freeway corridor.

As anyone driving between Calabasas and Thousand Oaks can tell you, it hasn't happened yet. My constituents often ask why. The answer is a story of special-interest groups and their influence.

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Billboards: The state and federal governments have taken away local control of billboards within 660 feet of the freeway. All 15 billboards that are still standing were allowed while our community was governed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. No new billboards have gone up since incorporation.

Ten have come down to make room for roads and buildings. Several attempts have been made to change state and federal law to allow us to give owners reasonable time to remove their billboards. Congress has refused to grant states the power to do this.

Several years ago I represented the National League of Cities at a congressional hearing on a bill to allow cities to reduce or eliminate billboards. Billboard industry lobbyists were highly visible during the hearing. I informed the committee that most of our billboards did not help local businesses but advertised national products such as alcohol and tobacco. Seasoned political observers have warned that it is politically impossible to pass legislation in Washington or Sacramento due to the well-financed and highly effective billboard and sign interests. They were right. The bill never cleared the committee.

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Pole signs: In 1985, we passed an ordinance prohibiting the installation of new pole signs and giving the owners seven years to remove the existing ones. Council elections and surveys told us this was what the people wanted.

Their desire to get rid of the monsters was not unique. Cities throughout California have shown their preference for more attractive signs. Many cities, including Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley, replaced their pole signs through the adoption of a similar ordinance.

In Agoura Hills, a dozen came down without a fight; more disappeared when businesses changed or remodeled. But 12 local businesses have refused to comply, and their signs still look down on the freeway. The city's many attempts at compromise with them have been unsuccessful.

These businesses, including Lumber City, Texaco, Jack In The Box, McDonald's, Burger King and Denny's, took their case to the people in 1993, putting an initiative on the November ballot. Money poured in from corporate offices throughout California and as far away as Indiana and South Carolina. They have spent more than $100,000 in the past two years on newspaper ads, mailers and leaflets.

To give voters another choice, the City Council placed a middle-ground measure on the ballot to allow monument-style signs of 35 feet (the height of a three-story building) for traveler-related businesses.

The result? The defeat of both ballot measures, by margins of nearly 4 to 1, leaving the existing ordinance in place.

The people spoke, but the fight goes on. Instead of bowing to popular opinion, the sign owners have now challenged the ordinance in court, contending the city has violated their rights under business law. So much for the democratic process that the sign moguls were extolling during the election campaign!

This is a test case with wide ramifications, the first challenge to a city's right to remove these signs.

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Logo signs: Small blue roadside signs displaying the business logos of nearby establishments are used in more than 40 states. A perfect solution for Agoura Hills? I think so, as do my fellow council members. We favor it not only as an alternative to pole signs but also to put all our businesses on a level playing field. The battle is now being waged in Sacramento.

A bill by Assemblyman Terry B. Friedman, supported by us, would allow traveler-related businesses close to the freeway to erect these highly visible signs. Caltrans would administer the program.

Many businesses as well as our residents support this bill (AB 487), which has passed the Assembly and is in the Senate. But the billboard lobby, the Sign Users Council and a few pole-sign owners oppose it. They are reportedly concerned about competition and the effect that logo signs might have on their lawsuit. From what I've heard, it's going to be close.

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