Agoura Hills Stymied in Attempt to Remove ‘Classified Ads’ on Freeway

Times Staff Writer

Shortly after Agoura Hills became a city in 1982, residents were asked what the new city’s priorities should be.

The No. 1 response to the survey was overwhelming: Get rid of “billboard alley.”

So Agoura Hills set about to purge itself of the collection of 31 billboards that hugged a 3 1/2-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway.


Legislature Lobbied

The city lobbied the state Legislature for stricter billboard laws. It tangled with an unhappy sign company in Superior Court over whether a sign was removed legally. It entertained the possibility of buying the billboards so they could be destroyed.

But, so far, nothing has worked.

Today, 25 billboards still stand along the freeway, and some of those signs have leases stretching into the 21st Century. The six signs that vanished were removed only because property owners decided to develop their land.

“The whole thing is a royal mess,” Agoura Hills Mayor Jack Koenig said. “It’s frustrating.”

The city’s experience, however, is no different from Los Angeles County’s or that of other local jurisdictions in California. Federal and state laws, which protect the powerful billboard industry, have stymied efforts by cities and counties to banish the highway signs.

The problem of billboard blight was highlighted last week when the Board of Supervisors, at the urging of Agoura Hills and local residents, agreed to explore whether county sign regulations should be tightened.

Compensation Required

Essentially, the laws require local governments to compensate a company if they want a billboard removed. A city or county must reimburse the owner not only for the value of the sign but for the revenue that would be lost in dismantling it. Generally, the billboard companies name their own price.

Because of that, Agoura Hills officials say they could no more afford to buy 25 billboards than they could afford to retire the national debt. In fact, the cost of buying the billboards would probably exceed the city’s annual budget of $10.5 million.

Ray Paschke, a spokesman for National Advertising Co., estimated that the city would need $5 million to $10 million to purchase his company’s inventory of billboards. The company owns the majority of the billboards in the city.

“They are very expensive to get rid of. . . . It’s out of our price range,” lamented Paul Williams, the city’s planning director.

The county also ruled out buying freeway billboards. Although the county has not allowed a billboard to be erected along the Ventura Freeway since the mid-1970s, some older signs are still standing in Calabasas, the only unincorporated stretch along the freeway.

‘Cost Millions of Dollars’

“If the state law had not protected them, we probably would have said, ‘Time to take your signs down folks,’ ” said Louis Pera, the county’s zoning enforcement supervisor. “You can’t do that now. It would cost millions of dollars.”

Congress set the precedent for compensating the billboard industry when it passed the much-heralded Highway Beautification Act of 1965, the culmination of Lady Bird Johnson’s dream of replacing highway signs with flowers and trees. Only later did anti-billboard groups realize that the act made the sign industry even stronger.

Still, many signs did come down over the years. In California, local governments typically would amortize the value of a billboard over a period of several years to meet the federal requirement. The signs were ordered removed only when they were deemed valueless.

But, in 1983, the California Legislature passed a law requiring billboard companies to be paid for their signs in cash. Then a second law was passed denying local governments the right to order the removal of a billboard as a prerequisite for building on the property.

Critics attribute the billboard industry’s legislative success to its deep pockets. The industry is a major contributor to congressmen and California legislators, said John Miller, a director of the Coalition for Scenic Beauty, a national organization composed of such groups as the Sierra Club and the American Institute of Architects.

The timing of the two state laws was a disaster for the fledgling city of Agoura Hills.

‘Classified Ads of Region’

“Sometimes people refer to us as the classified ads of the region,” complained Fran Pavley, an Agoura Hills councilwoman who noted that billboard blight is not a problem to the city’s east and west because the City of Los Angeles and Ventura County outlawed signs along the Ventura Freeway long ago.

Billboards are popular with cigarette and liquor companies as well as home builders who want to entice motorists to visit their new subdivisions. Paschke contended that most Agoura Hills residents probably found their homes with the help of billboards.

Although critics complain that the signs are eyesores that hurt property values, Paschke and others in the industry defend them as an invaluable form of communication. They say the signs should be protected as zealously as other forms of communication--from newspapers and magazines to television and radio.

But that kind of argument will never sway the Agoura Hills mayor.

On Thursday night, Koenig bumped into a lobbyist for the billboard industry at a League of California Cities dinner in Costa Mesa. After the introduction, he quipped to the young lobbyist: “Does your mother know you do this in the evening?”