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Activists on edge as L.A. City Council revisits digital signs

Neighborhood leaders worry a deal would let about 100 signs be left in place and allow more to be erected. Councilman Krekorian says a 'significant portion' of the city's signs could be taken down.

October 16, 2012|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • A Venice resident says this digital billboard on Lincoln Boulevard shines into her room. Councilmen Ed Reyes and Paul Krekorian say a new deal could bring the city a "significant" chunk of digital billboard revenue.
A Venice resident says this digital billboard on Lincoln Boulevard shines… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Neighborhood leaders on L.A.'s Westside responded with fury five years ago after the City Council allowed dozens of digital billboards to go up on Santa Monica Boulevard, Westwood Boulevard and a handful of other major corridors.

Now those same activists warn that the council is fast-tracking a behind-the-scenes plan to let those brightly lit signs stay for good — even after a judge struck down the agreement that spawned them.

Council members are scheduled Tuesday to decide whether to try to hammer out a new agreement with billboard companies within 30 days, or before an appeals court issues a ruling that could further restrict digital signs.

Councilmen Ed Reyes and Paul Krekorian said in their proposal that a new billboard agreement could deliver a "significant" chunk of digital billboard revenue to the city, money that would then be used to preserve basic services. But billboard foes contend that council members are doing the bidding of the outdoor advertising industry, keeping neighborhood activists in the dark about the planned talks and bypassing the committee where outdoor sign issues are typically vetted.

"If the council continues down this path … it means all of the digital billboards that exist now are likely to remain and future digital billboards could be developed in exchange for money" or other enticements, said Barbara Broide, president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Blvd. Homeowners Assn.

Reyes spokeswoman Monica Valencia said in an e-mail to The Times that neighborhood activists would have an opportunity to weigh in before decisions are made. Meanwhile, Krekorian released a statement saying a new sign agreement could lead to the elimination of a "significant portion" of the city's billboards.

"My goal is to see a reduction in all billboards — static and digital," he said.

For the last five years, residents in Westwood, Hollywood and elsewhere have complained about digital signs shining into their backyards, living rooms and other private places. Mindy Taylor-Ross, who lives in Venice, said the one on Lincoln Boulevard a block from her home is a source of aggravation.

"The billboard actually shines into my bedroom window from my bathroom upstairs. I keep thinking the trees will finally block out this invasion of my personal space, and they keep cutting the trees," she said. The fight over digital signs dates back to 2002, when the council approved a law outlawing new billboards except those allowed in special sign districts. The ordinance attracted a handful of legal challenges from billboard companies that claimed, among other things, that the sign inspection fees were too high.

In 2006, the council reached a settlement with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, giving each permission to convert 420 existing billboards to digital formats. That agreement was a "sweetheart" deal that allowed the two companies to ignore an array of zoning laws — and generate at least $100 million per year, said Phil Recht, a lawyer for Summit Media, a competing advertising company that sued to overturn the agreements.

The agreements also gave amnesty to Clear Channel and CBS for any billboard that lacked permits outright, Recht said. "It was really one of the more embarrassing recent episodes in L.A. city government, and now they seem poised to do it all over again," he said.

In 2009, Summit persuaded a judge to block the council deal, which prevented Clear Channel and CBS from converting more than 700 additional signs to digital formats. But the judge left it to the council to decide what to do about the roughly 100 digital signs already approved.

Since then, CBS and Clear Channel have filed an appeal. With opening arguments expected by the end of the month, Clear Channel has urged the city's lawyers to come up with a plan for preserving its existing digital signs — a move that would render the court's previous decision moot.

Recht said CBS and Clear Channel were "panicked" by the possibility that an appeals court would invalidate the roughly 100 digital signs already in operation. He described the Reyes-Krekorian proposal as "terribly misleading," in part because it suggests that the city could lose revenue if that happens.

"It implies that the city has some liability in this litigation, which is absolutely untrue," he said. "And it says the window is closing quickly to get money out of these companies, which also isn't the case."

Representatives of CBS Outdoor did not respond to calls from The Times. Clear Channel, which has 79 digital signs citywide, said in a statement that a new agreement with the council would benefit residents, businesses and outdoor advertising companies.

"This motion really represents the opportunity for the city to take control of its own destiny rather than relying on a court to determine the city's outdoor advertising policy," the company's statement said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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