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L.A. is urged to halt sign updates

Planning Commission says a comprehensive city policy on digital billboards is needed.

October 17, 2008|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to stem the proliferation of bright, digital billboards and untangle legal challenges to city restrictions on outdoor advertising, the Los Angeles Planning Commission on Thursday recommended a one-year moratorium on companies converting their traditional signs into electronic displays.

The purpose of a temporary ban is to give the City Council time to adopt a comprehensive new billboard ordinance to replace the hodgepodge of regulations and court rulings that currently dictates where advertisements can exist in Los Angeles.

"I am tired of the city of Los Angeles . . . being the doormat of the billboard industry," commission President Jane Usher said shortly before the unanimous vote.

Ryan Brooks of CBS Outdoor, a billboard company, said "We are always willing to sit down at the table with the city" to discuss any concerns or proposed regulations of outdoor advertising.

The recommended moratorium will now go before the council, which is already exploring reforms to the city's outdoor advertising regulations, including billboards and "super graphics" on buildings.

Council President Eric Garcetti said the moratorium would give "power back to neighborhoods" where electronic billboards have seemingly sprouted overnight.

"This gives us the ability to step back and look at this . . . without having a gun to our head," he said.

On Thursday, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo also weighed in, recommending a six-month moratorium on the installation or modification of all billboards in the city to allow the council to adopt a new billboard policy.

Chief Assistant City Atty. David Michaelson, testifying before the Planning Commission, said the city is facing more than 20 lawsuits filed by outdoor advertising companies challenging restrictions on the signs. He said the moratorium would allow the council time to draft a more comprehensive billboard ordinance and determine how many legal and illegal billboards currently exist.

Delgadillo's proposal was greeted with skepticism by some billboard opponents, since the city attorney received more than $400,000 in free advertising space from billboard companies when he first ran for office.

Delgadillo also reached legal settlements in 2006 with two of the biggest billboard companies in the city, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, that allowed 840 billboards to be upgraded to digital displays. The companies had sued the city after the council approved a ban on outdoor advertising in 2002 and sought to inspect and create an inventory of all the billboards in the city.

"It's like assigning the fox to design a protection system for a henhouse," said Dennis Hathaway of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

Hathaway said he was encouraged by the commission's vote Thursday.

Still, he predicted that new billboard restrictions would face bitter opposition from advertisers.

"No matter what they decide, it's going to end up back in court," he said.

The Planning Commission heard from a number of community leaders, all of whom called for a crackdown on the electronic signs.

David Ewing of the Venice Community Coalition complained that the billboard industry has too much political sway in Los Angeles, thanks to its ample campaign contributions.

"This is not a legal problem," he said. "If it were, Santa Monica would be suffering the same fate we were. It's a political problem."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday endorsed the Planning Commission's recommended moratorium, saying through a spokesman that it would provide the necessary "breather" to forge a coherent billboard plan to protect neighborhoods.


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