California law includes a loophole that is unique to the sign industry: A billboard is presumed to be legal if it's been in place for five years without receiving a notice of violation. Experts say no other industry in the state is granted the right to avoid enforcement after five years. And it's highly unusual for the burden of proof to fall on inspectors, who, if they hope to challenge the presumption, must demonstrate that a permit was never filed or updated — essentially requiring them to prove a negative.
As a result, Los Angeles can't crack down on hundreds of unpermitted, possibly illegally erected billboards, and the city is constrained from targeting hundreds more that are out of compliance with the permits on file. Because of the loophole, the City Council is considering granting amnesty to nearly 1,000 billboards to avoid what some members say will be an inevitable wave of lawsuits if the city tries to remove these signs.
This is the latest wrinkle in the decades-long effort to manage the city's visual landscape without running afoul of a highly litigious sign industry. The so-called rebuttable presumption of legality was added to state law in the 1980s through legislation sponsored by the billboard industry. Sign companies argued that just because a permit wasn't on file didn't mean the sign wasn't put up legally; some signs were decades old, and government agencies often lost or destroyed records. However, the law ended up tying regulators' hands and creating a perverse incentive for companies to put up or alter billboards on the sly. If inspectors didn't catch them within five years — a possibility in L.A., which has had only a handful of staff assigned to check some 10,000 signs across 468 square miles — the billboards were presumed to be legitimate. And if regulators wanted to remove a problem sign, the government would have to pay the owner “just compensation,” which can cost upward of $1 million for an urban billboard.
It's time to close this loophole and give communities the tools to reduce billboard blight. In 2007, then-state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, attempted to revise the law. Senate Bill 563 would have removed the five-year rebuttable presumption. It also would have made clear that a city can order a billboard removed without compensation if the sign has been altered in some way since its original permit — for example, by adding a second sign on the back.
But the outdoor advertising industry has been a powerful lobby and generous campaign donor in Sacramento. (And in Los Angeles too, where one sign company plans to install more than 100 billboards supporting City Council candidates this election season.) Ridley-Thomas' bill died in committee. A similar effort by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) was rejected in 2009. This is a bill worth reviving. We urge another legislator to reintroduce the bill and attempt to bring some common-sense reform to California's billboard law.