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Fixing a Junked-Up Skyline

January 04, 2002

While the rest of us dressed up for New Year's Eve parties Monday night or settled down to watch the ball drop on television, workers for STI/Outdoor LLC were unloading dozens of steel columns, digging holes and pouring concrete along heavily traveled Los Angeles-area freeways in preparation for erecting at least 25 huge billboards. This stealthy, middle-of-the-night maneuver was of dubious legality but entirely in character for the outdoor advertisers who have junked up the local skyline with thousands of large billboards and want to put up still more.

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo got a temporary restraining order Thursday halting construction until a Jan. 25 court hearing on the legality of these shenanigans. But a permanent solution to billboard blight awaits the City Council, if it is willing to designate as top priorities the tighter regulation of existing signs and strict limits on new ones.

A longer-term victory will also require continued, tough enforcement by Delgadillo, who won his office with the help of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of free billboard advertising. He says he's not beholden to the billboard industry that helped him win. Here's his chance to prove it.

STI/Outdoor claims its contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority allows it to put up 41 billboards on MTA property throughout Southern California, 25 of them within Los Angeles city limits. MTA officials insist that the company needed to obtain city permits to erect the billboards; STI/Outdoor says it didn't. A state law that took effect Tuesday makes the permit requirement crystal-clear. Not surprisingly, the company wanted to get in under the wire--and under cover of darkness. With each board generating up to $1 million a year, little wonder.

The work crews did not have right-of-entry permits for Metrolink property or proper insurance. They inadvertently cut an electric train cable; they also failed to post flaggers along Metrolink routes, endangering the lives of passengers as well as their own. Thursday's restraining order puts at least a temporary end to this audacious activity.

STI/Outdoor's gambit should be a poke in the ribs to council members returning from their holiday break. Now is the time to impose permanent limits on new billboards--as Culver City, Santa Monica and other nearby cities have done--and to go after the illegal signs. Start with a new ordinance, a lot tougher than the one the council asked the Planning Department to draft last year. That weak-kneed proposal, in exchange for the removal of less profitable signs, would allow 70 giant, double-sided billboards to be built around town, much like those that STI/Outdoor tried to erect.

As for Delgadillo, he's anxious to prove he's a good guy despite his well-heeled supporters. That means he will have to take pains to give his billboard company friends no breaks, no benefit of the doubt in enforcing the law.

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