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Carwash Owner Loses Sign Ruling

Commerce: Judge upholds City Council's order to move and reduce size of huge decoration. Operator's defiance could cost him a year in jail.

March 21, 2001|CAITLIN LIU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge ruled against the owner of a Studio City carwash Tuesday, finding that the Los Angeles City Council did not abuse its discretion in ordering that a large sign on Ventura Boulevard depicting a 1957 pink Corvette be reduced in size.

Ever defiant despite the legal setback, owner Ben Forat vowed to keep his local landmark: a giant fiberglass hand, yellow sponge and a hot pink Corvette towering over Studio City Hand Car Wash.

"It is never, ever, ever, ever, ever going to come down or be moved until every other sign on Ventura Boulevard has come down," Forat vowed after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David Yaffe threw out his civil lawsuit seeking to keep his sign just the way it is.

"I will not modify my sign in any way, shape or form," Forat said.

It may be his personal cause celebre, but many neighbors who have fought for the last two years say the sign needs to conform to city and neighborhood standards.

Forat has another appointment in court: April 11, for a hearing on misdemeanor charges of erecting an illegal sign and failing to comply with a city building and safety order.

He faces up to one year in jail if convicted, and a Van Nuys judge will also have the discretion to order the sign modified or removed. If he still refuses to comply, Forat could face contempt of court charges.

"The process has started to close in [on Forat]. We're in sight of the end now," said Dale Thrush, planning deputy for City Councilman Joel Wachs.

In a downtown courtroom Tuesday, Yaffe also found that there was no requirement that Forat pay $20,000 to a street-beautification fund in exchange for allowing him to keep his sign as is, contrary to Forat's claims.

"[The $20,000 amount] was what we call a red herring," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeri Burge.

In 1999, Forat had offered to pay $6,000 to a street-beautification fund in exchange for permission to keep his sign, which had been built without a permit. But officers of a local homeowners association didn't think the amount was enough and suggested $20,000, according to Thrush, who tried to mediate the dispute.

Last March, the City Council ruled that the sign, which stands 6 feet taller and juts 8 1/2 feet closer to the street than allowed by law, could be granted an exemption if Forat reduced its size, moved it farther back from the street and paid $6,000 to the tree-planting fund.

"We had never demanded money greater than what the council approved," which was only $6,000, Thrush said.

On Tuesday, the judge upheld the City Council's March 2000 orders that Forat lower his display to 20 feet, move the display 10 feet back from the property line and pay $6,000 to the fund, Burge said.

Forat's big sponge also must reduced from 88 to 50 square feet, the judge ruled.

Burge called the lawsuit a delaying tactic. The council had set a June 8, 2000 deadline for compliance, but Forat filed his lawsuit one day before, which delayed the criminal proceeding, those familiar with the two-year brouhaha say.

"It's very sad to have someone abuse the system for his personal gain," said Joan Luchs, president of the Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Assn.

"This is more about the process than whether the sign is cute or appropriate. If Mr. Forat is allowed to keep the sign, it will set a precedent," Luchs said. "If we don't stand up for this, what about all the other signs?"

Polly Ward, vice president of the Studio City Residents Assn., said: "Our whole problem with the sign is that it is illegal . . . If everyone did what they wanted to do, there would be chaos."

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