Driving along Pacific Coast Highway, it isn't hard to notice when you've arrived in Redondo Beach.
From the north, the first clue comes at Irena Avenue by way of Players Light cigarettes. From the south, the giveaway comes at Avenue G, this time courtesy of Benson & Hedges.
If you miss the tobacco giants, there are nearly two dozen other clues along the way: Honda, Wells Fargo, Delta Air Lines, Seagram's, Manhattan Village, Suzuki, Winston, KIIS, TWA, KMET--even the state of California--just to name a few.
The clues are billboards. But if Redondo Beach planning officials have their way, the massive outdoor advertisements soon will be on a different road: one leading to extinction.
Redondo Beach is one of just a handful of coastal communities in Los Angeles and Orange counties that allow off-site outdoor advertisements, as billboards are known in city planning jargon. In Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach's neighbor to the north, the signs are banned on Pacific Coast Highway and all other streets.
To the south, in Torrance, billboards are allowed but rarely approved, particularly along PCH, which is set aside in the city plan as a scenic corridor.
There are 36 billboards in Redondo Beach, most of which are clustered along a 2 1/2-mile stretch of PCH and two miles of Artesia Boulevard--two of the city's major commercial strips. Most of the outdoor advertisements are at least 300 square feet.
The billboards have long been considered a nuisance by some drivers, nearby homeowners and local merchants who say they are dwarfed by the oversized placards. City officials report that some of the billboards block sunlight and restrict ventilation of neighboring buildings, cast shadows on homes and pose safety problems on busy commercial streets.
'An Obscenity to Me,' Says Resident
"If there is a definition of pornography, you can call it a billboard," said Bruce Stool, a Redondo Beach resident who led a successful drive last year to block erection of a 300-square-foot billboard at Aviation Boulevard and Grant Avenue.
"They are an obscenity to me," Stool said in an interview. "They are an eyesore to the residents and a public distraction while you are driving down the street."
Representatives of the billboard industry, however, argue that the signs provide consumers with valuable advertising and public-service information and represent a legitimate form of free speech. They say billboards are an effective communication tool for businesses of all types, particularly in communities like Redondo Beach that have high traffic volume.
"The beach cities are a very desirable area for advertisers," said Bonnie Kingry, a representative of Foster & Kleiser, a Metromedia company with 16 billboards in Redondo Beach. "We have been in Redondo Beach for 30 years. We want to remain in the community."
Importance of Aesthetics
Yale Maxon, an environmentalist who has since the early 1950s fought the proliferation of billboards throughout California, said in a telephone interview this week from Berkeley that cities throughout the state have been moving toward fewer billboards in recent years.
"They affect safety, property values and aesthetics," said Maxon, who serves on the board of the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental group that lobbies for legislation in Sacramento. "Aesthetics is no longer a bad word. It is reasonable grounds for billboard control."
In beach cities, aesthetics has been particularly important, in part because of the value placed on unobstructed ocean views, well-kept neighborhoods and neat commercial strips designed to attract tourists and out-of-town shoppers, analysts say.
Redondo Beach city planner Kevin Callahan said cities like his have learned that they have to clean up their commercial areas if they are going to compete with other beach cities.
Dependent on Tourism
"It has come down to the realization that most coastal communities are dependent upon tourism, and in order to attract people, you have to be attractive," he said.
Callahan said the city is spending $1.5 million to place utilities underground on Artesia Boulevard, and there are similar plans for PCH. The city has also spent $150,000 over two years to improve facades and signs in commercial areas on both Artesia and Aviation boulevards.
"Coastal communities have generally recognized that billboards conflict with the character of their communities," wrote Randy Berler, a planning assistant who works with Callahan, in a report on billboards. "They dominate the skyline, add clutter and confusion along the commercial corridors, and compete with or obscure local business signs. . . . The minimal economic benefits and occasional public service announcements offered by billboards are heavily outweighed by the detrimental impacts to the city's commercial corridors."
South Bay coastal cities that prohibit outdoor advertisements are Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates and Rancho Palos Verdes. Torrance and El Segundo, while not banning billboards, impose far-reaching restrictions on them. In Los Angeles, the City Council last month imposed restrictions on the location, number and size of new signs throughout the city while the council works on permanent controls.
Last April, in response to concerns raised by the city Planning Department, the Redondo Beach City Council placed an emergency moratorium on new billboards larger than 200 square feet. The planning officials had warned that the city could expect a proliferation of new billboards if it did not come up with restrictive legislation. At least five requests for new large billboards were pending before the city at that time, the officials said.
The City Council extended the moratorium until March of this year to give the Planning Commission, a group of citizens appointed by the council to consider zoning issues, and the city Planning Department time to study the existing billboard ordinance and to propose a new one.
This week, the Planning Commission and staff presented their findings to the Council and recommended a permanent ban on new billboards and the elimination of existing ones. At the request of representatives from Foster & Kleiser, the council voted on Tuesday to delay any action on the Planning Commission proposals for two weeks while the company prepares a response.
The commission proposed a 15-year amortization period to phase out the advertisements, during which the city would put money aside to pay for the signs. Under state law, billboards can be removed only if the city provides "fair value" compensation to the billboard companies and the land owners.
"The important thing is for the City to start the clock on amortization so that these signs can eventually be removed," the report said.
City Atty. Gordon Phillips said the city cannot require removal of the billboards before it provides compensation. The Planning Commission report suggests that the phase-out period could be extended beyond 15 years if the city cannot afford to pay the compensation within that time.
Phillips said there is no way to estimate how much the commission's proposal could eventually cost. The actual "fair value" compensation would probably be determined in court, he said.