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Payoffs Alleged in Fight Over Proposed Billboards

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A dispute over plans for huge billboards in West Hollywood has turned into a debate over whether a developer has paid off neighbors to support his $250-million Sunset Strip project.

City Council members will be asked tonight to rescind approval of a proposal by builder Mark Siffin to erect large V-shaped billboards atop high-rise buildings in his Sunset Boulevard development or to place a billboard-rejection referendum on the next citywide ballot.

The billboards could generate millions of dollars in advertising revenue that Siffin says he needs to help make his partly constructed Sunset Millennium project financially viable. In September, the City Council voted 3 to 2 to approve the signs after a parade of neighboring residents testified in favor of them.

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But opponents of the project have obtained copies of signed agreements between Siffin and neighbors in which he promised them thousands of dollars in exchange for their active public support of his controversial hotel-office-retail project.

Part of the support apparently includes a petitioning effort to get a rival initiative on the ballot so voters can support Siffin’s billboards.

The dispute might seem confusing to outsiders who already have come to view the Sunset Strip as Los Angeles’ premier canvas for garish billboard displays and advertising supergraphics.

But some West Hollywood residents say the city’s strict billboard controls protect it from the blight of oversized outdoor advertising. Until the September council vote, such billboards had been banned in the area of Siffin’s project.

Opponents of the Sunset Millennium project say the discovery of the agreements clouds the validity of purported public support of not only the billboards but of the entire development, which includes blocking off part of one street and spanning busy La Cienega Boulevard with West Hollywood’s first commercial pedestrian bridge.

“This casts a whole other view of all of these public meetings where people stood up and said they love the project,” said G.G. Verone, a leader of an opposition group. “I think it looks pretty horrible.”

Project opponents said a resident of an Alta Loma Road condominium secretly gave them a copy of Siffin’s agreement, which promised $200,000 to the Empire West Homeowners Assn. in exchange for residents’ support of the project.

Homeowners also had to pledge to “conduct information and outreach meetings” and agree not to criticize Sunset Millennium to the city “or in the news media,” according to the document.

On Friday, Siffin acknowledged the agreements but disputed that they were intended to buy off opposition to the project. He characterized them as “mutual support and benefits agreements” that are similar to payments made to cities for the impacts caused by developments. Sunset Millennium’s support in the neighborhood is genuine, he said.

Siffin said he was able to convert dubious neighbors into supporters by involving them in the project’s design.

“We talked, we met, and they helped shape the project support,” he said. “The notion of anybody being bought off is a completely off-the-wall concept. They see this as their project, something they helped shape and build.”

Empire West association President Norby Walters not only testified in favor of the billboard plan at the City Council’s Sept. 4 meeting but is also helping circulate initiative petitions designed to preserve Siffin’s authority to erect the signs at Sunset Millennium. Walters could not be reached for comment.

Walters is a well-known entertainment and sports agent who attracted national attention in a scandal in the late 1980s that tainted the amateur sports world and led to new laws restricting athletic recruiting.

With partner Lloyd Bloom, Walters was accused of signing dozens of college football players to representation agreements in violation of National Collegiate Athletic Assn. regulations. A federal investigation led to the pair’s convictions on charges of racketeering, conspiracy and mail fraud in 1989, although the convictions were later overturned on appeal. In 1993, Bloom was found shot to death in his Malibu home.

Siffin has been controversial too. A Nevada Supreme Court opinion in 2000 described him as once suspected by law enforcement officials of being a “major cocaine trafficker” who might have been connected to a 1978 Reno murder. As a result of that court ruling, the man previously convicted in that murder was released from death row and now awaits a new trial this spring in which Siffin may be called as a witness.

As he has insisted in the past, Siffin said Friday that he was not involved in the murder or drug dealing and was not involved with anybody connected to the case.

Meanwhile, some West Hollywood officials said they are having second thoughts about Sunset Millennium, especially since Siffin has signaled that he may build an apartment complex instead of a tax-generating luxury hotel at the site.

“I have a lot of doubts now about what the true intention behind this project has been from Day One,” said Councilman John Duran.

Mayor John Heilman said council members have obtained copies of Siffin’s agreements with neighbors. “I think even my colleagues who have supported this project are feeling like they have not been dealt with honestly,” he said.


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