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L.A. measure would ban new digital billboards

Proposed outdoor advertising rules would also shrink sign size and effectively outlaw supergraphics that cover buildings.

January 23, 2009|Phil Willon

Los Angeles would outlaw new digital billboards and slash the size of all new commercial signs under a proposed ordinance intended to end proliferation of outdoor advertising that critics say have overwhelmed neighborhoods and L.A.'s busy roadways.

Overall, the space allowed for new signage would shrink to one-quarter of what is currently permitted. The proposed restrictions would, in effect, also ban so-called supergraphics that stretch across office buildings, new billboards larger than 80 square feet and all roof signs.

The measure came before the city Planning Commission on Thursday morning and is the first tangible step in the city's effort to overhaul its outdoor advertising laws, which have been under legal attack since the city imposed a ban on all new billboards in 2002.

In December, the City Council imposed a three-month moratorium on all new signs, buying time to replace the mishmash of codes and court rulings that regulate outdoor advertising in the city.

After four hours of public testimony at a hearing in Van Nuys, the Planning Commission postponed action on the proposed ordinance until mid-February.

It also instructed city planners to toughen fines and penalties to encourage compliance and to allow the city to hire more sign inspectors. The city Department of Building and Safety has only three inspectors to check signs throughout the city.

"A law isn't worth the paper it's written on unless it can be enforced," Commissioner Spencer T. Kezios said. "For a city this size to have only three people to enforce something that has become such a major issue in the minds of the citizenry is beyond me."

The city currently can seek $100 per sign in civil fines from people who erect signs illegally or own signs that do not comply with city law. It can also seek penalties of up to $2,500 per day if a sign is declared a public nuisance.

Business groups and outdoor advertisers attacked the proposed ordinance as an unfair impediment to local companies desperate to attract customers during the economic downtown.

Vanessa Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce told the commission that the restrictions would hit small businesses hardest because they tend to rely more on billboards than on other forms of advertising.

"The last thing we should be doing is discouraging small-business growth," she said.

Some neighborhood groups and anti-billboard advocates praised the proposed restrictions but worried that the ordinance could have unintended consequences, including an explosion of mini-billboards in front of apartment buildings and businesses across the city.

Currently, the city has separate restrictions for "on-site" signs, which advertise the store or products it sells, and "off-site" signs, which advertise products not available on the property.

The proposed measure scraps that distinction, so all signs would be regulated by the same criteria. City building inspectors advocated the change, saying enforcement would be easier.

The ordinance was drafted largely as a response to the spread of digital billboards, the result of a 2006 legal settlement allowing hundreds of electronic signs.

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

Under the court settlement, up to 840 billboards could eventually be converted to digital; however, a spokesman for the city attorney's office said that would not occur if the council approves a citywide ban on all digital billboards.

Planners recommend banning all new digital signs, saying they pose a traffic hazard.

Ryan Brooks of CBS Outdoor, one of the largest billboard companies operating in the city, disagreed, saying a number of academic and government studies show that assertion to be untrue.

He also noted that the largest provider of digital signs along roadways in California is Caltrans, which provides road conditions, Amber alerts and other information to drivers.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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