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2 Firms Agree to Remove 98 Billboards in Settlement

September 14, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Two prominent billboard companies have agreed to take down almost 100 billboards across the city under a tentative lawsuit settlement announced to the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday.

Although the settlement has not yet been finalized, its terms are expected to remain in place. That would represent a small but significant step in Los Angeles' years-long battle against billboards.

Under the proposed settlement of the suits against the city, two of the largest billboard companies in the United States -- Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor -- each would take down 49 billboards. The locations were not specified; each firm has more than 3,000 billboards in the city.

The companies also agreed to remove any billboard erected after 1999 that doesn't appear to have a city permit. It is unknown how many that might be.

Additionally, the firms agreed to help fund a city program to inspect their billboards on a regular basis to ensure that they comply with the law.

"I wrote the law because illegal billboards have long been a problem in the city, but the building and safety department could never enforce the laws because they never had the resources they needed," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who wrote the legislation that sparked the lawsuits.

Billboards have come under fire in cities and counties across the United States in recent decades for causing visual blight and clutter.

Several states have outlawed them, while some cities -- including Denver and Seattle -- have capped the number of billboards in their towns, according to the group Scenic America.

The problem is that in many locales -- Los Angeles included -- billboards often went largely unregulated for decades, leading to contentious battles when lawmakers finally decided to do something about them.

In Los Angeles, the issue came to a head in 2002 when the City Council passed two billboard laws that targeted what are known as off-site billboards: those not on the property of what they advertise. There are thought to be about 10,000 of these types of billboards in the city and they are generally the largest, and most controversial, signs.

The first law was a moratorium on any new billboards in the city -- which still stands.

The second, and more problematic to billboard companies, was a law that imposed a fee on each billboard in the city to fund the inspection program.

The annual charge -- more than $300 per billboard -- provoked several firms to sue the city. They complained that the fee was excessive and that it could be viewed as a violation of free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution.

As part of the proposed settlement, the city would allow the two firms to "modernize" 420 of their billboards, including using new technology that allows for changing images.

The settlement also would maintain the inspection fees, though they would be significantly lower.

"I didn't work on the settlement, but I get the impression that this is much fairer than it was before, and the fee came down some and took some of the heat off the billboard companies financially," said Ken Spiker Jr., a lobbyist who represents Clear Channel. "The fee before was very onerous, and that's what forced them to go to court against the city," he said.

steve.hymon@latimes.com

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