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L.A. officials miffed at mysterious trimming of trees near billboards

Removal of the landscaping improved the visibility of enormous ads placed by outdoor advertising firm World Wide Rush. Company officials deny involvement in the vandalism.

February 26, 2009|Alexandra Zavis

The mysterious felling of roughly two dozen trees near city billboards has provoked finger pointing between state transportation officials and an advertising firm, and added fuel to a heated debate involving outdoor advertising in Los Angeles.

Vandals apparently used chain saws to cut back the trees, which had been planted along the 10 and 405 freeways under a California Department of Transportation landscaping initiative. It seems the rogue tree cutters wanted to increase the visibility of enormous ads erected by the World Wide Rush advertising company, said Daniel Freeman, a Caltrans deputy district director for maintenance.

"I can't imagine why anyone else would want to cut down these trees," Freeman said.

The advertising firm says it had nothing to do with the matter.

Paul Fisher, a Newport Beach lawyer representing World Wide Rush, accused officials of looking for ways to get around federal rulings that limit the city's ability to ban digital signs and large ads known as "supergraphics," which cover entire buildings.

Freeman said the trees were cut back in December and January, just before World Wide Rush put up supergraphics for Tropicana juice on a parking structure at the Sherman Oaks Galleria and a six-story building on National Boulevard, near the 10 Freeway.

The damaged landscaping included a row of 15-foot Brisbane box evergreens that were cut down to 3 or 4 feet, Freeman said. Caltrans had planted the trees near the Galleria at a cost of about $2,500 to $3,000 each, in order to screen the 405 Freeway, he said.

"I am particularly annoyed that these were the ones that got hit," Freeman said. "These were essentially brand new."

Five or six more trees were felled near the building on National Boulevard, he said, along with five belonging to the shopping mall.

Katherine Defever, a Galleria representative, said mall officials were baffled when they noticed the destruction and had initially assumed that Caltrans officials were cutting back landscaping themselves.

Freeman said Caltrans was notified of the cutting by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who filed criminal charges in January against World Wide Rush and National Investment Co. -- owners of the building at 10801 National Blvd. -- for allegedly putting up an unauthorized sign and violating safety regulations.

World Wide Rush contends the charges are in contempt of a federal ruling that found a 2002 city ban on new billboards unconstitutional. Although that decision is under appeal, the company won an injunction preventing officials from banning supergraphics at 34 buildings, including the one on National.

Freeman said the sign on National violates the California Outdoor Advertising Act, which gives Caltrans control over advertising displayed within 660 feet of a freeway. The department is conducting its own investigation into the matter, he said.

While Freeman hopes to replace the damaged landscaping, he said the department would not be able to afford to put in mature trees like the ones that were lost.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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