Critics knock deal on ad signs in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo is facing opposition from Los Angeles beautification advocates for having pushed a lawsuit settlement that could allow hundreds of new and existing illegal billboards to get permits.

Critics question Delgadillo's impartiality in negotiating the deal because sign companies donated $424,000 worth of billboard space to support his first election in 2001. And the firms have since contributed thousands more to him and some of the City Council members who must approve or reject the settlement.

"Rocky was elected in part because of the billboard advertisements," said Joyce Foster, chairwoman of the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission. "This settlement is terrible for the city, but it sounds like a fabulous deal for the billboard companies."

Faced with mounting criticism of the terms, which the council has tentatively approved, Delgadillo is attempting to negotiate additional concessions from billboard companies, including stricter limits on the number of new signs.

Delgadillo said in a statement that the council and the mayor would ultimately decide whether to settle the suit.

"But I believe that the most positive aspects of the proposed settlements are that we will be increasing public safety by ensuring the structural integrity of L.A. billboard signs, a large number of billboards will be removed, and we are establishing a first-of-its-kind comprehensive billboard inventory and inspection program to enable us to better monitor our city's billboards," Delgadillo said.

"And these critical reforms will be implemented immediately, without the specter of continuing protracted litigation," he added.

Delgadillo spokesman Nick Velasquez said the unsolicited independent expenditures received from sign companies are not relevant. He said that Delgadillo has always "aggressively defended" the city's regulation of the industry.

Foster and others question why Delgadillo is pushing to settle the lawsuit -- brought by Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor -- when the city has already won major victories over the companies in court.

"Delgadillo has a history of being very lenient on the billboard industry and doing nothing," said Ted Wu, founder of L.A.'s Citizens to Ban Billboards and Blight. "Instead of settling, they should enforce the law."

At issue is an ordinance adopted by the City Council in February 2002 to begin an inspection and enforcement program aimed at regulating more than 10,000 billboards in Los Angeles. The ads on the billboards generate more than $1 billion a year for their owners.

The ordinance, which also imposed permit fees, was adopted at the same time the council imposed a moratorium on new billboards.

Councilman Jack Weiss said he proposed the inspection program and supported the moratorium because building inspectors did not have enough employees to enforce laws governing the size and location of billboards.

As a result, the city does not have a firm count of existing billboards, and officials don't know how many of them lack permits.

"This was to be a one-two punch against visual blight in the city, that we would stop the companies from putting up new signs, and that we would have a new inspection system to discover and dismantle the illegal signs," Weiss said.

But a group of billboard companies sued the city, claiming the regulations infringed on their constitutional right to free speech and that the proposed fees were unjustified.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson rejected that argument and said the ordinance could also apply to billboards put up before sign restrictions were adopted in 1986.

A state judge similarly ruled that the ordinance does not violate the state Constitution. Other issues, such as the size of the fee, are pending.

The city had originally proposed an annual fee of $314 per billboard, which would cover the cost of regular inspections.

But under the settlement, each billboard would be inspected once every three years, and the firms would pay an initial fee of $186, followed by a $184 fee three years later to cover the second inspection.

"It pays for less-frequent inspection," Weiss said.

Still, Delgadillo's spokesman said a settlement would be prudent because it would avoid appeals and probably be tougher than the deal the city attorney originally sent to the council for approval.

Though the city attorney's office is still negotiating final details with the two largest firms, the council in September approved key terms under which the billboard companies would drop their legal challenges.

Velasquez said the settlement would let the city begin the inspection program, which has been bottled up in the courts for four years, while putting a cap on the number of billboards that are modernized, expanded or retroactively permitted.

Ken Spiker Jr., a lobbyist for Clear Channel, said the deal is a good one for both sides because it reduces the red tape and cost for sign companies while allowing Los Angeles to get a handle on the number of billboards.

Ryan Brooks, a vice president with CBS Outdoor, agreed.

Weiss said he had hoped the city attorney could have negotiated a better deal.

"The settlement is not ideal," Weiss said. "But after five years if the city attorney comes to me and says, 'Do you want to keep litigating or you want something that can be implemented,' what choice do I have?"

Under terms approved by the council, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, which together own about 4,100 billboards, would take down 98 structures as well as those put up without permits after 1998.

That, Velasquez said, could mean that hundreds of un-permitted billboards would come down, although he was not sure how many, if any, the measure would cover.

In exchange, the firms would be allowed to modernize up to 840 billboard structures. A structure is a pole that can have two billboards on it facing opposite directions.

For structures with just one billboard, the original settlement terms would allow the companies to put up 840 new second sides, but sources said Delgadillo was seeking to limit that number to 200 or fewer.

Another option that the council provided would be for the companies to modernize 840 structures with digital or backlit messages or other signs that change automatically.

Still another option would allow the firms to get permits for 840 existing billboards that were put up without permits before 1999. The firms could also mix and match from the various options as long as they stayed within the cap of 840 billboard structures.

"I've never seen anything this lopsided before," said William D. Brinton, a Florida attorney and executive board member for the national anti-blight group Scenic America.

He said the 98 signs that companies would have to take down in Los Angeles represent the normal annual attrition of signs in the industry, where every year some property owners decline to renew leases.

At the same time, billboard companies would be allowed to legalize signs that were put up without permits.

"It's very possibly rewarding unlawful conduct by giving the companies something they were not entitled to in the first place," Brinton said.

Brinton warned that allowing digital light-emitting-diode signs under the modernization could turn some Los Angeles neighborhoods into versions of the Las Vegas strip, with bright displays that can be seen two-thirds of a mile away and blink to change messages up to every four seconds.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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