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L.a. Oks 3-month Outdoor Sign Ban

The action gives the city time to craft a coherent policy on billboards, officials say.

December 18, 2008|Phil Willon

The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday approved a three-month moratorium on billboards and super-graphics wrapped around buildings, a pause designed to give the city time to replace its current restrictions on outdoor advertising, which many consider ineffective.

The temporary ban comes after years of court challenges and political maneuvering that have undermined existing billboard regulations. Dozens of new bright digital billboards have popped up around Los Angeles, with hundreds more likely to come. The proliferation has angered residents of many neighborhoods.

The moratorium is intended to give the city time to craft a permanent and coherent billboard policy -- or even consider an outright ban on the signs -- that could affect all aspects of outdoor advertising in the city, from roadside billboards to televised commercials blaring from pumps at gas stations.

"This is a great first step for us to take a deep breath and shut them down from doing anything more . . . so that we can figure out where we go as a city," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents coastal communities.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said that he would support the moratorium.

At least one major billboard company, Clear Channel Outdoor, warned the council before the vote that it might take legal action to block the ban. Given the litigious history of the billboards companies in Los Angeles -- the city faces more than 25 lawsuits filed by outdoor advertising companies challenging restrictions on the signs -- city officials said they expected a court challenge.

Dennis Hathaway, of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, has advocated a crackdown on billboards in Los Angeles and said that he was relieved the council approved the moratorium. But he remains wary of the political battle ahead when the council debates which billboards and other advertising signs to allow and which to outlaw.

"What we need is a ban, period. No off-site signs," Hathaway said. "Other cities have done that without a problem."

A number of developers and business representatives urged the council not to adopt the moratorium, especially on the vinyl super-graphics that stretch across sides of buildings, arguing that the income from those ads was critical to their bottom line.

The city Planning Commission in November had recommended a six-month moratorium but had exempted 26 super-graphics that had received city approval. Officials in City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's office opposed allowing any exemptions, however, saying that doing so would make the ordinance vulnerable to legal challenge.

Under the moratorium, which received unanimous council approval, the city's ban on issuing permits for billboards or super-graphics can be extended for an additional three months. Exempted from the ban are companies that already have started construction of signs that have received city permits.

Planning Department officials are drafting a new, comprehensive signage policy for the city, which will regulate all forms of signs, including billboards, super graphics, digital displays and store-front signs.

The proposal is expected to come before the Planning Commission in late January and the City Council shortly thereafter.

Ryan Brooks of CBS Outdoor, one of the city's largest billboard companies, on Wednesday said he supported the moratorium because it would give the city an opportunity to approve "fair and equitable" regulations that apply to all outdoor advertising companies.

"We recognize there's a need for effective billboard regulation in the city of Los Angeles," Brooks said.

In 2002, officials approved a ban on outdoor advertising and sought to inspect and create an inventory of all the billboards in the city. At the time, the department of building and safety estimated there were 10,000 billboards in Los Angeles -- with an undetermined number of them lacking permits and illegal.

Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, two of the largest billboard companies in the city, filed suit, arguing that the restrictions were in part an infringement on their 1st Amendment rights.

In 2006, they reached a settlement with Delgadillo -- later approved by the council and Villaraigosa -- that allowed 840 of their billboards to be "modernized" and upgraded to digital displays.

The city thus far has issued permits allowing 95 billboards to be converted to digital displays.

Those settlements have since been criticized as a giveaway to the billboard companies and for undercutting the city's attempt to restrict digital billboards proposed by other outdoor advertising companies.

"The billboard companies, with all their millions of dollars, have played us like a puppet on a string," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who represents the southwest San Fernando Valley.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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