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Sign of the Times: Billboards Still Up

Agoura Hills: Many outdoor ads are gone, but court rulings have slowed community's campaign against 'visual pollution.'


Planning Director Mike Kamino unrolled a 5-foot-long map of Agoura Hills and drew Xs through a cluster of red dots north of the Ventura Freeway. The dots stood for three billboards that had been torn down a couple of years ago.

Three down and 11 to go. "Eventually, they'll become extinct," said Kamino, who has watched the city's 19-year battle against billboards, pole signs and other forms of "visual pollution," as the anti-sign forces call it.

All that remain are 11 of the pole signs that tower above the freeway, advertising gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other businesses. There were once 44.

Because of an unfavorable legal decision, a powerful pro-billboard lobby and other factors, the city has scaled back its efforts to strip away the visual clutter along the freeway to restore a pristine landscape of rolling hills.

"That was one of the main reasons the city incorporated," Kamino said, explaining that Agoura Hills' founders had hoped to reverse the proliferation of outdoor advertising.

Some of the major points in the city's history involve its signs. In 1985, the city banned future pole signs and ordered existing ones removed in seven years. In 1993, residents reaffirmed their opposition to pole signs by defeating two referendums that would have allowed them to remain.

But their struggle intensified in 1995 when 12 local business owners sued to keep their pole signs. In 1995, a Superior Court judge found in favor of the businesses, a decision that was upheld on appeal. That meant that pole signs could remain as long as their owners wanted them to.

A few have removed them voluntarily.

"It's proceeding, but not as fast as I'd like," Councilman Jeff Reinhardt said of the demise of the remaining signs. "It's sad, in a sense, that we're stuck with these signs in our community."

Reinhardt suspects that many Agourans support businesses that honor the community's opposition to pole signs.

"We have two Shell stations in our city within about one mile of each other," he said. "The one without a pole sign seems to do better, even though it's at a less-traveled intersection."

But pole signs have their champions--actually a whole industry of them. Wade Swormstedt is editor and publisher of the industry's bible, Cincinnati-based Signs of the Times magazine.

Swormstedt is familiar with Agoura Hills' fight against pole signs. In his view, the signs have their place, especially in a city like Agoura Hills, where businesses are not easily seen from the freeway. Without pole signs, many of those businesses would have failed, he said.

"The on-premise sign is the most economical form of advertising for the small business," he said. Swormstedt ticked off the numbers: a typical pole sign costs 22 cents per thousand "impressions" or viewings, while billboards cost $1.65, newspaper ads $3.13 and TV spots $13.20.

Many cities, including Agoura Hills, require new businesses to use smaller, lower monument signs. Swormstedt thinks monument signs are a menace because they cannot be seen from a distance. They suddenly appear in a driver's field of vision, forcing quick decisions on the road. "In our industry, we call monument signs 'tombstones' because they cause accidents," he said.

A new property owner--NW Rugs--removed the last three billboards to come down in Agoura Hills. But the city's success in reducing billboards bucks the national trend. Most American highways are sporting more than ever.

Meg Maguire is president of Scenic America, which describes itself as the nation's only scenic conservation organization. She said that despite the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the number of billboards on federally funded highways increases by 5,000 to 15,000 annually.

That increase does not represent the will of the people who drive by them every day, Maguire argues.

Maguire said the industry lobbied for favorable laws that require groups that want to do away with billboards to pay large amounts for them, including projected earnings. As a result, many communities that are against billboards can't afford to bring them down.

Kamino said the city had tried to buy some billboards to remove them, even though they cost $500,000 to $1 million each. In the early 1990s, the city received a grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for billboard removal but had to use the money for highway repairs and other projects after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Reinhardt said he knocked on 828 doors during the last city election and found that "cleaning up the corridor" was still a high priority with constituents.

As the owner of an ad agency, Reinhardt said he understands both sides of the debate. But he believes the city has made its preferences clear, and he plans to go back to the MTA for more money for billboard removal.

His reason is simple: "I think a city does have the right to determine how it looks."

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