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Los Angeles weighs trade-offs in billboard removal

L.A. City Council is mulling another package of billboard regulations

When it comes to the issue of billboards, L.A. isn't exactly known for having its act together.

Twelve years ago, the City Council passed a law regulating outdoor signs, only to become bogged down by legal challenges from the outdoor advertising industry.

Four years later, lawmakers backed a deal to allow up to 840 digital billboards, only to face a neighborhood backlash over the brightness of the signs and how close some were to homes. That deal was later scrapped by a judge.

Now, after five years of deliberations, council members are weighing another package of billboard regulations. The proposal would dramatically reduce the number of locations where new billboards, in "sign districts," could be installed. But some neighborhood leaders see the proposed ordinance as too favorable to real estate developers and outdoor advertising companies.

Among the hottest issues is a proposal to let new billboards go up only if other outdoor signs come down. One crucial question: If the city allows new digital signs — and some argue they should not — what should lawmakers demand in return?

L.A.'s proposal, currently in Councilman Jose Huizar's planning committee, calls for outdoor advertising companies to dismantle "more than one" square foot of existing signage for every square foot of new billboard the city approves.

Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, thinks the city is setting the bar too low. Hathaway says council members should demand that at least two square feet of older billboards be removed for every new square foot approved. If lawmakers decide to allow new digital signs — which are more lucrative for advertising companies but can also be more intrusive and distracting — the takedown ratio should increase to a minimum of 8 to 1, Hathaway argued.

"They're just giving up a golden opportunity to remove a lot of blight in the community," said Hathaway, who has been tracking billboard issues for a decade.

Huizar did not respond to an interview request, but said in an e-mailed statement that he wants "common sense" rules that decrease the overall number of billboards. His committee has taken steps to adjust — some say water down — the sign removal formula proposed by city planners.

Responding to requests from lawmakers, city staff has drafted language that would reduce the billboard takedown requirement 50% for companies that agree to provide "community benefits." Those benefits could include sidewalk repairs, new landscaping, better lighting or the addition of a mural. The ordinance does not spell out the minimum value of such improvements.

Billboard takedown programs can be found elsewhere, particularly Florida. In Orlando, sign companies must dismantle four square feet of non-electronic billboard in exchange for permission to install one square foot of new digital sign. In Tampa, 10 non-digital billboards must come down when one electronic sign goes up. And in St. Petersburg, sign company Clear Channel Outdoor let six digital signs go up near highways in exchange for the removal of 83 non-electronic signs elsewhere.

That agreement gave St. Petersburg a small piece of the sign revenue and a 20-year sunset date, which would require Clear Channel to renegotiate the terms.

"There was considerable pressure to make sure we got [billboards] out of neighborhoods," said Karl Nurse, a councilman in that city. "We think that was probably a fair trade."

Long Beach approved an ordinance this year that requires, in some cases, an 8-to-1 takedown formula for new digital billboards, said Jeff Winklepleck, that city's acting planning administrator. So far, the city has approved four digital billboards in exchange for the removal of 37 others, he said.

In L.A., some say the benefits aren't worth it, no matter what the trade-off. Jan Reichmann, president of the Comstock Hills Homeowners Assn., said her neighbors were thrilled when electronic signs were turned off last year in and around her Westside community. "No way in hell would we like to see another digital billboard," she said.

Takedown agreements were first advanced in Los Angeles in 2002 by then-Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who led the city's last major effort to regulate billboard growth. Miscikowski originally wanted a strict prohibition on all new "off-site" signs — billboards that advertise a product available elsewhere. But in an effort to win passage, she backed an ordinance that banned new billboards citywide but granted exceptions for those placed in new, specially designated sign districts.

The idea was to remove billboards from residential communities but allow them in commercial and entertainment corridors like the streets around downtown's Staples Center. Council members quickly began proposing sign districts for areas ranging from a single lot to a long stretch of Wilshire Boulevard.

The sign district exception, said Miscikowski, became a loophole that "you could drive a Mack truck through."

Planning officials are now recommending the council cut the number of locations eligible to become sign districts 90%. That would leave the city with roughly two dozen locations — including downtown, Koreatown and Century City — as potential billboard zones.

Clear Channel Outdoor said it favors a takedown formula that allows for new digital billboards. But it has been resisting the effort to scale back the locations where billboards could be permitted. If city officials are interested in eliminating a significant number of older billboards, said company spokeswoman Fiona Hutton, they will need to offer more potential sites for new digital signs.

Ray Baker, vice president at advertising company Lamar Outdoor, said demands from billboard critics for an 8-to-1 takedown formula for new digital signs are "not reasonable." Billboard firms wouldn't bother to use such a program, he predicted. "What is the point of spending all of the time and effort on a compromise if it is so egregious no one will participate?" he asked.

Lamar sought to make a trade with L.A. five years ago by offering to dismantle 4,000 of its billboards — many of them the smallest in the city — in exchange for a package of new digital and non-digital signs. Four years later, the company went to court to overturn the city's billboard ordinance, saying its rules were being applied unevenly. One judge has already sided with the company, which is seeking to install at least 45 digital billboards across the city.

The case is now on appeal. The outcome could, yet again, blow up the city's effort to regulate outdoor signs — digital or otherwise.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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