This week, City Council members will begin debating whether to make Los Angeles uglier. How? By eviscerating a proposed ordinance that would sharply curtail where new, bright, blinking digital billboards can be installed. Instead, they're considering allowing sign companies, which spend generously on local political campaigns, to put up billboards pretty much wherever and whenever they want, if they can persuade city officials to sign off on the permits.
To make matters worse, some council members want to ignore the advice of their own city attorney and grant amnesty to hundreds of questionably legal billboards that might otherwise be taken down.
Apparently L.A.'s leaders have not learned from past mistakes. More than a decade ago, under pressure from residents who were tired of the proliferation of unsightly signs and a cluttered skyline, the City Council passed a ban on new off-site signs — those that advertise products and services sold elsewhere. But then council members carved out so many exceptions to the ban that they essentially rendered it meaningless. Sign companies sued, the city spent lots of money fighting the lawsuits, and eventually it won a judgment that affirmed its right to limit new billboards. However, the court was clear: The city can't grant exceptions to the ban “willy-nilly.” Los Angeles needs clear, objective rules on where and when signs are banned — and where and when they can be allowed.
In response to that ruling, the Planning Department and the city attorney's office crafted a reasonable, thoughtful proposal. The ordinance would maintain the ban in roughly 90% of the city and allow new billboards only in some 20 designated “sign districts,” commercial areas such as downtown and Hollywood where big, bold signs fit the visual aesthetic. In order to put up new signs in a district, companies would have to take down signs elsewhere.
The plan may have been reasonable, but the council wasn't satisfied. Its Planning and Land Use Committee asked staff to report on how the city could permit digital billboards outside sign districts as well.
Why would council members want to allow digital billboards virtually anywhere? The short answer is money. The city could negotiate a cut of the advertising revenue to help fund police and street paving. Or it could impose mitigation fees and community benefits agreements to help pay for sidewalks, streetscapes or other beautification efforts. Sign companies also argue that the city could mandate the removal of several old or poorly located billboards in return for allowing one new digital sign. And, they say, if a council member and the community are willing to accept a billboard in exchange for benefits, what's wrong with that?
But that raises troubling questions: Will some neighborhoods feel forced to accept billboards simply to get basic amenities such as sidewalks or street lights? Is a community's visual environment a commodity to be sold? And who gets to decide whether the trade-off is worth it? The loudest advocacy group? The council member, who likely benefited from the industry's campaign spending? (Major sign companies have spent more than $200,000 on direct donations and independent expenditures on behalf of elected city officials over the last three years.)
The billboard debate reflects the larger problem with planning and land use in Los Angeles: Everything is negotiable. A developer wants to build a high-rise tower on a lot zoned for a low-rise building? Just get the council member to sign off on a zone change. A sign company wants to put a digital billboard outside a sign district? Just offer enough perks to get the council member or the neighbors to back the conditional-use permit. Decisions are made project by project, and there's no certainty for the community or adherence to a larger vision of what the city should look like.
But enforcement, especially, should not be negotiable. That's why it's so worrisome that some council members want to grant amnesty to the 937 billboards that lack permits or are out of compliance with their permits. City Atty. Mike Feuer has opposed amnesty and said the city could go after at least 391 of those signs, which were altered in violation of their permits, and possibly more if city investigators could build the case. Amnesty would be a gift worth thousands, even millions of dollars for sign companies.