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L.A. panel recommends 6-month ban on billboards

The moratorium, which the council will rule on, would give the city time to replace weak restrictions.

November 14, 2008|Phil Willon | Willon is a Times staff writer.

Los Angeles city planning officials Thursday recommended a six-month moratorium on new billboards, intended to give the city enough time to replace the weak, ineffective outdoor advertising restrictions that have allowed billboards to sprout almost unabated across the Los Angeles skyline.

The Planning Commission's proposed moratorium now goes before the City Council. City officials have struggled for years to regulate the billboard industry even as the placement of the oversized signs has infuriated many in Los Angeles neighborhoods. So far, the industry has successfully used the courts to shred city restrictions on where such signs can be placed, arguing the rules are unfair and inconsistent.

Council members already are reviewing ways to stem conversion of standard billboards into digital displays and impose limits on multistory "super graphics" stretched across buildings. They also are trying to determine how many billboards currently exist in the city -- both legally and illegally -- and impose permit and inspection fees on the outdoor signs.

Planning Commissioner Michael K. Woo, who proposed the moratorium, said the measure recommended Thursday would be a "very effective step to stopping" the proliferation of signs, especially digital displays, while the council crafts a permanent and coherent citywide billboard policy. The temporary ban can be extended in three-month increments and also would prohibit billboards from being modified to digital.

The proposal exempts a handful of billboards that have received building permits, as well as 26 super-graphics that also have received city approval. The city attorney's office had warned the commission that exempting the supergraphics could make the moratorium vulnerable to legal challenge.

Dennis Hathaway of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, who has advocated a crackdown on billboards in Los Angeles, said he was happy to see the commission recommend the temporary ban. But he also expressed concern that the exemptions would "undercut the city's ability to enforce it."

Representatives of outdoor advertising companies as well as some major local developers argued against the moratorium, saying that many projects, including the LA Live entertainment district in downtown Los Angeles, rely on revenue from outdoor advertising to help make them economically sustainable.

"We just think the city is being extremely shortsighted," William F. Delvac of Latham & Watkins, representing LA Live developer AEG Corp., told the commission.

Tamara McCrossen-Orr, representing Lamar Advertising Co., told the commissioners the restrictions were unreasonable and infringed on the company's constitutionally protected right to free speech.

She also dismissed concerns that outdoor advertising companies are converting many of their billboards to digital displays, saying the $1.5-million cost of doing so makes it "too expensive" in most cases.

"There's no danger of the proliferation of digital signs," she told the commission.

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo last month recommended the commission approve a six-month moratorium on the installation or modification of all billboards in the city.

The city currently faces more than 20 lawsuits filed by outdoor advertising companies challenging city restrictions on the signs.

In 2002, city officials approved a ban on outdoor advertising and sought to inspect and create an inventory of all the billboards in the city. Two of the largest billboard companies in the city, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, sued the city, arguing the restrictions were in part an infringement on their 1st Amendment rights.

In 2006, they reached a settlement agreement with Delgadillo that allowed 840 of their billboards to be 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.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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