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Teaming Up Against Blight

September 01, 2003

Los Angeles' billboard fees got some major support a few weeks ago from a federal appeals court, a ruling that should put some muscle into the city's weak regulations. Given how mightily outdoor advertisers labored to eviscerate the ordinance, this is good news for every resident who's awakened to discover a humongous billboard that rose overnight across the street. Residents of course get just as steamed -- and feel just as helpless -- when someone dumps a ratty couch on the front curb, slathers gang slogans across freshly stuccoed walls or flings trash into the vacant lot next door. Politicians and residents could make a real difference in the look of their communities by piggybacking a wider cleanup onto the billboard crackdown.

The 2002 billboard ordinance allows the city to levy a $314 annual fee on each sign -- pennies compared with the $100,000 these boards may rake in annually from advertisers. The fee will pay for Building and Safety Department inspectors to verify billboards' legality. Officials believe that as many as 4,000 of the city's estimated 10,000 billboards are illegal, either lacking a permit or unlawfully expanded. Well-heeled advertisers and their lobbyists have until now stonewalled the city's tepid efforts to pull them down.

Building and Safety inspectors say they plan to walk neighborhoods, checking every billboard against city permit records. Inspectors must also insist that illegal signs conform or come down and bring legal action if the owners balk. Billboard inspectors should ask for company, too. A team that includes prosecutors from the city attorney's office and representatives of the local neighborhood council and City Council office could at the same time tackle other street-level nuisances that blight Los Angeles -- drug houses, graffiti, rusting jalopies, mattresses ditched in alleys and other trash. This team effort could make L.A. sparkle.

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