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L.A. planning panel fails to overhaul billboard law

March 19, 2009|David Zahniser

A divided Los Angeles Planning Commission failed to overhaul the city's billboard law Wednesday, with some members saying a proposed sign ordinance grants too many exceptions to the outdoor advertising industry.

The panel, which needed five votes to send a rewritten sign law to the City Council, deadlocked on a series of 4-3 votes.

Commissioner Mike Woo led the fight against the 151-page proposal, which would prohibit new digital billboards and most large-scale vinyl supergraphics on a citywide basis but allow them in up to 21 potential sign districts. Woo said the city needs more strict criteria before allowing such sign districts.

"What people are going to see is a massive proliferation of signs in the city" if the ordinance goes unchanged, he said.

The commission plans to take up the matter again next week. If approved, the sign law would give the council discretion to create billboard districts in neighborhoods such as Van Nuys, Encino, Koreatown, Warner Center, Westwood, Chinatown and San Pedro. For each district, the council would need to make special findings that such signs would enhance a neighborhood's "unique quality, theme or character."

Planning officials said a far greater number of districts could be created under the current law. Still, billboard foes warned that such exceptions would continue to make the city vulnerable to legal challenges -- and attract more digital billboards and vinyl supergraphics, which can cover one or more sides of a multistory building.

Advertising companies repeatedly have sued the city, saying that the council cannot ban signs on a citywide basis while approving them in certain locations, such as a Hollywood billboard district.

"Each sign district you approve, each exception you grant, will consign our city to the continuing proliferation of lawsuits and the relentless proliferation of larger and more intrusive signs," Westwood resident Marilyn Cohon told the commission.

Chief Assistant City Atty. David Michaelson disagreed, saying that the new sign ordinance is designed to satisfy U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins, who struck down the city's 2002 billboard law as unconstitutional last year.

"We believe the sign district language, presently drafted as it appears before you today, should survive judicial scrutiny," he told the panel.

Commissioner Sean Burton spoke in favor of the new rules, saying that any sign district would be subject to a lengthy review process.

"These are in the densest and most urban areas of the city," Burton said. "We're not talking about residential areas."

The council hopes to approve the billboard rules before June, when a six-month sign moratorium expires. Planning officials already are reviewing requests from council members and real estate developers for seven billboard districts in such areas as Mid-City, Hollywood and Universal City.

Under the new ordinance, the vast majority of Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente Boulevard and the 110 Freeway would be eligible for sign districts. So would areas around the Beverly Center, Northridge Fashion Center, Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza and Promenade at Howard Hughes Center in Westchester.

Still, some business leaders described the proposal as too restrictive, saying it would harm businesses that already are suffering by reducing the allowable size of certain outdoor signs. Others said sign districts are a pivotal economic development tool that would receive sufficient scrutiny from policy-makers.

"The commission and the City Council should trust itself to adopt sign districts in an appropriate manner," said City Hall lobbyist William Delvac.

The proposed law also would allow certain exceptions to the city's sign rules for development projects that are larger than 100,000 square feet. That troubled Planning Commissioner Cindy Montanez, who feared that it would open the city to more accusations that it has different sets of sign rules.

Planning Commission President William Roschen said he was satisfied with the proposal, pointing out that some of the city's historic icons -- including the Hollywood sign -- started out as outdoor advertising. His predecessor, former Planning Commission President Jane Usher, was more biting, saying that the city's proposal would do little to address the increasing number of billboards and supergraphics.

"Don't be fooled," she told the panel. "Today's ordinance adds more signs to the city -- vastly more."

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

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