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Panel orders removal of digital billboards installed across L.A.

Three-judge appeals panel says City Council never should have allowed advertising firms to convert dozens of billboards to electronic formats when existing laws prohibited such changes.

December 10, 2012|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • Neighborhood activists say digital billboards create blight and shine into yards and homes.
Neighborhood activists say digital billboards create blight and shine… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

A three-judge panel Monday ordered the removal of 100 digital billboards installed across Los Angeles under a 2006 legal settlement — the latest turn in a decade-long saga surrounding outdoor signs.

The panel convened by the state's 2nd District Court of Appeal said the City Council never should have allowed advertising companies CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor to convert dozens of billboards to electronic formats when existing laws prohibited such changes. "We do not see how the language could be plainer," the ruling states.

The panel instructed a lower court to order the revocation of permits for electronic signs already permitted under the agreement, many of which were on the Westside.

Neighborhood activists have opposed digital signs for years, saying the brightly lighted images — which can change as frequently as every eight seconds — shone into yards and homes in Hollywood, Westwood and elsewhere. "Needless to say, [it's] a very happy day for us," said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

Jim Cullinan, a spokesman for Clear Channel Outdoor, did not say whether his company would appeal. "We respectfully disagree with the court's ruling and are in the process of reviewing the court's complete opinion," he said in a statement. Of the billboards that are at issue, 79 are operated by Clear Channel.

CBS and Clear Channel sued the city nearly a decade ago, joining another company that sought to block implementation of a 2002 ordinance banning the installation of billboards except in special sign districts. In 2006, the council backed a settlement with CBS and Clear Channel that allowed them to convert up to 840 existing billboards to electronic formats.

Summit Outdoor, a smaller sign company, went to court to invalidate the agreement, calling it a sweetheart deal. A judge sided with Summit, calling the agreement "poison" and blocking the city from allowing new digital signs to go up. But he refused to order the removal of the 100 or so digital billboards that had already been installed under the 2006 settlement.

Those signs generated $100 million annually for CBS and Clear Channel, according to Summit lawyers. On Monday, Summit attorney Timothy Alger said the ruling reinforced the notion that the city's zoning laws "must be applied equally."

"The appeals court confirmed that the city government cannot make special deals that grant special zoning rights to two rich and powerful corporations just to avoid lawsuits, generate revenues or to pay back political favors," he said.

L.A. officials, who regularly turn to real estate and advertising companies for campaign contributions, have been eager to come up with new regulations for digital billboards that would allow the city to tap a portion of the sign revenue. Two months ago, Councilmen Paul Krekorian and Ed Reyes urged that new digital sign rules be developed before a ruling came out in Summit case, saying the city needed to take advantage of the "public benefits" created by electronic signs.

A council committee is scheduled to discuss the issue Tuesday. Meanwhile, one neighborhood leader was jubilant over the court's decision.

"This is a hard-fought win," said Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Blvd. Homeowners Assn., which filed an amicus brief in support of Summit's lawsuit. "This city should be grateful to Summit for having brought the suit."

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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