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'The laws must be followed': City issues warning to L.A. school districts considering digital billboards

'The laws must be followed': City issues warning to L.A. school districts considering digital billboards
An electronic billboard similar to the one installed on school property in Albuquerque, N.M., would be illegal under Los Angeles law, the city attorney says. (Albuquerque Public Schools)

The Los Angeles city attorney has told local school district officials that installing commercial billboards on school property would violate city law.

Although school districts, including L.A. Unified, have broad latitude over land-use matters — sometimes trumping city authority — the rules of the city prevail in this situation, City Atty. Mike Feuer said in a statement in response to news that the school district was exploring the idea of putting up a billboard at Hollywood High School.

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"Los Angeles' sensible and meaningful restrictions on digital billboards protect the integrity and safety of our neighborhoods," Feuer said. "Those laws must be followed."

The principal of Hollywood High, meanwhile, has withdrawn the proposal and it's off the table, school district officials said.

Los Angeles currently bans new signs, such as billboards, that don't advertise a service or product available on the immediate property, according to a letter from the city.

Thousands of older billboards across the city do not fall under the restriction, and some advertisers have flouted the ban.

The nation's second-largest school system has taken flak since district staff and Hollywood High collaborated on a presentation about the benefits of installing an electronic billboard, possibly with two faces, at the high-traffic intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

At the time, Hollywood High Principal Alejandra M. Sanchez talked enthusiastically about the idea, and a senior district manager suggested that this billboard could be the first of many.

The leader of an anti-billboard group estimated that such a sign could attract $1 million a year in advertising revenue. In New Mexico, the Albuquerque school district collects about $225,000 a year from eight billboards.

In L.A., the reaction was lukewarm from a committee made up of  four of the seven school board members, with two leaning against the plan and two others noncommittal. At the time, it seemed likely that the proposal would go before the full board for discussion this month.

Officials said that Sanchez did not specify to them why she withdrew the proposal. Sanchez did not respond to attempts by The Times to contact her.

"The principal decided not to pursue this. So it's dead for right now anyway," said L.A. Unified General Counsel David Holmquist. "We would never knowingly violate the law so we appreciate the city attorney's input."

The city attorney's office made its case in a three-page letter accompanied by 29 pages outlining the city's rules for signs.

Although a school district can bypass local zoning ordinances when land is being used for educational purposes, the same would not apply to land set aside for billboards, even if the money raised would benefit schools, Deputy City Atty. Kenneth T. Fong wrote.

Fong cited a battle between the city of Santa Cruz and the local school system, which wanted to replace the lights at a high school athletic field. The city said its approval would be needed.

Santa Cruz lost, but only because the athletic fields were used for physical education classes, interscholastic athletics, school spirit activities and band performances — elements that are an "integral part of the educational program at the high school," according to the ruling.

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The ruling cited examples of uses of school district property over which a city could exert authority, including warehouses, administrative buildings, and automotive storage and repair buildings. Billboards would fit into this list, Fong asserted.

In a later case, involving Rancho Santiago Community College in Orange County, the courts decided that a Sunday swap meet on college grounds, which contributed revenue to the college, was not exempt from zoning ordinances.

In L.A. the school board relaxed barriers against some forms of advertising in 2010 amid a major economic recession. The district allowed sponsorship of events and ads on its fleet trucks (but not school buses). At the school level, campuses have allowed donors to do such things as put their names on small signs along a fence.

Twitter: @howardblume

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UPDATES:

5:40 p.m. This article was updated to reflect that the Hollywood High principal did not respond to attempts to contact her.

This article was originally published on Dec. 7 at 4 a.m.

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