Billboard Blight Banned

By Dennis Hathaway

As a new year dawns, the issue of illegal billboards in L.A. has come to the forefront in a major way.  First, an appeals court ruled just a few weeks ago that the city must revoke the 105 permits issued to Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor for converting conventional billboards to digital.  Second, after being sued the city finally released the long-sought results of its citywide billboard inventory and inspection program.

Each of these actions could potentially result in significant changes to the visual landscape of the city, reducing billboard blight and giving citizens and neighborhoods relief from the effects of brightly-lit, constantly-changing ads that have generated numerous complaints of light trespass into houses and apartments, along with serious concerns regarding traffic safety and energy use.

Of course, if Clear Channel, CBS and other billboard companies with their powerful army of City Hall lobbyists have their way, this won’t happen.  Instead, the city will agree to a revenue-sharing deal allowing all or most of those digital billboards to keep beaming their electronic ads, and conventional billboards found to either have no permits, or to have been illegally altered after they were put up, will be protected by an obscure state law.

For those who haven’t followed these issues closely, digital billboards started appearing shortly after the City Council approved a lawsuit settlement with Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor back in 2006 that gave the companies the right to “modernize” a total of 840 billboards by converting to digital technology that allows copy to be changed remotely.  The billboards typically show a rotation of 6-8 ads that change every eight seconds, which greatly expands the amount of advertising on a single billboard and brings much more revenue to the billboard owner.

The companies were able to convert 101 billboards to digital before public outcry led to a moratorium on the conversions in 2008 and then a permanent ban in 2009.  In the meantime, a small billboard company called Summit Media sued the city on the grounds that the 2006 lawsuit settlement was illegal because it allowed the digital conversions without any public notification or hearings as required by city ordinance, and violated the city’s 2002 ban on new off-site signs and alterations to existing ones.

That case worked its way up to the California Court of Appeals, which ruled on Dec. 10 that the lawsuit settlement was indeed illegal and ordered the revocation of the permits.  Since Clear Channel and CBS are expected to appeal that ruling to the California Supreme Court, the order will probably not take effect for several months, depending upon the outcome of such an appeal.

The issue of the conventional billboards put up without permits or illegally altered dates back to 2002, when the City Council approved the off-site sign ban.  At the same time, it instituted the Off-Site Sign Periodic Inspection Program (OSSPIP), which levied a fee on billboards to support a city-wide inventory and inspection.  The lawsuit the city settled with Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor in 2006 actually began as a legal challenge to OSSPIP, which delayed its start until late in 2008, when a lower fee was approved and the inventory got underway with inspectors from the city’s Department of Building and Safety going street by street to photograph and gather data about the city’s billboards.

By late 2010, building department officials said both informally and in public meetings that the inventory and inspection work was done.  Approximately 6,000 billboard structures with a total of 9,000 sign faces were found, and nearly 1,300 were out of compliance in some manner with their permits.  According to the OSSPIP program, all of that data in detailed form was to be compiled in a database that would be publicly accessible on the department’s website.

For reasons still not entirely clear, that database wasn’t made public until a USC graduate student named Lisa Sedano sued the city under the California Public Records Act.  The database is now posted on the Department of Building and Safety website, although in a form that makes determining the legal status of any particular billboard somewhat difficult.

In the database, billboards without permits or with unpermitted alterations such as the addition of a second face or enlargement, are listed as “Presumed Lawful” pursuant to a section of the California Business and Professions code that deals with a little-known provision called the “rebuttable presumption.”  That provision essentially says that if a billboard hasn’t been cited by the city within five years of its unpermitted erection or alteration it is “presumed lawful.”

That would seem to mean that Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, Lamar Advertising, and the city’s other billboard companies with illegal billboards don’t have to be worry about being forced to take down or otherwise bring those signs into compliance with their permits.  However, a recent court case casts serious doubts on the ability of billboard companies to use that provision as a defense, and activists working on billboard issues are asking the city to take action to rid communities of any billboards that don’t comply with the proper codes.

In Venice, there were nine billboards that fell into that category at the time of of the inventory, although one of those has now been removed.   Eight of those signs are on Lincon Blvd.; one is on Venice Blvd.  Six were found to have second faces added without permits, and two were enlarged or raised beyond what was allowed.

There are two digital billboards in Venice, both owned by Clear Channel and both on Lincoln Blvd, and the company has headed a massive lobbying effort in city hall on behalf of a deal that would keep the billboards in operation.  In October, the City Council voted 11-3 to direct city departments to report back in 30 days with the details of just such a deal,  although that deadline has passed without any indication that a deal has been worked out.

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Councilmembers Paul Koretz, Tom LaBonge, and Eric Garcetti voted against the motion, and Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who was absent due to medical reasons, sent a letter also expressing his opposition.  It is no coincidence that almost all digital billboards are in those four councilmembers’ districts.

Clear Channel and other billboard companies have not publicly stated what they’re offering as part of a deal allowing the digital billboards to remain, although at least one councilmember has mentioned the  figure of $25 million in annual revenue.  It is also known that the companies are offering to take down some of their conventional billboards, although how many and where they are located is an unanswered question.

What is clear is the fact that the court has spoken on behalf of people who believe that city government should operate openly, within established rules, regardless of how those people feel about digital billboards or billboards in general.  Should powerful companies like Clear Channel and CBS be able to circumvent the courts and the will of the people in pursuit of their profits?

That answer should be clearly NO.

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