BURBANK — Motown great Stevie Wonder has gained a global following with songs such as "You are the Sunshine of My Life," and "Superstition." But that popularity doesn't seem to have impressed some Toluca Lake residents angered over one of the entertainer's real estate investments.
Call it a controversy over, as Wonder put it in another song, "Higher Ground."
Wonder leases airspace over a building he owns at 4616 Magnolia Blvd. to Outdoor Systems Advertising, a Phoenix company whose billboard has promoted everything from beer to Angelyne's assets.
The Toluca Terrace Woods Homeowners Assn., representing nearby residents, objects to the ads as offensive. Further, they contend the sign encroaches into Burbank, which imposes tighter restrictions on billboards than the city of Los Angeles, which is where the company argues the site is located.
Wonder's building is in Burbank, but the pole supporting the sign, next to the building, is just over the border into Los Angeles, the billboard company says. The opponents contend, however, that the sign itself pokes back above the building, sticking into Burbank airspace.
"It has promoted alcohol, cigarettes and pornography," said Theresa Karam, a longtime opponent of the billboard and a founder of the homeowners group. "It also blocks our views of the Hollywood Hills."
A spokesman for Outdoor Systems Advertising confirmed the company has a lease on the Magnolia Boulevard site, but insisted the company complies with regulations.
"It's been permitted by the city of Los Angeles since 1976," said Tim Fox. "If you look at a map, it's on the border with Burbank. But it clearly lies within the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles. It follows every single state and city requirement."
Nevertheless, at the urging of Karam and others, the Burbank City Council last week ordered a survey of the billboard to determine whether any of it extends into Burbank.
"Depending on the results of the survey, we will take the appropriate legal action to force them to remove it or conform to city codes on signage," said Councilman Ted McConkey.
Still, some Burbank officials say it might not be as easy as just removing the offending sign. "If it is encroaching on the city of Burbank by a couple of feet, all they would have to do is turn the sign away from Burbank," said Burbank City Atty. Dennis Barlow.
"It would display the same and you could still see it from the street. We can't regulate things that are not in our city."
Fox said that even if the billboard is found to be at least partially in Burbank, the city could not remove it without compensating the company. That, he said, "could be expensive, depending on the location, construction cost and other factors."
As for Wonder, representatives of the entertainer said they had not talked to any of the residents, adding that the billboard company ultimately is responsible for what appears on the sign.
"We don't have anything to do with the content of the billboard," said Bill Randle, who described himself as part of Wonder's management team. "It was here when we purchased the building.
"There are other billboards the same height and the same size along Magnolia Boulevard. Are they complaining about those also?"
Perhaps Stevie Wonder summed it up best in his songs: "Too High" and "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It."