Don’t accept billboard blight

KEVIN E. FRY is the president of Scenic America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scenic conservation and preventing visual blight.

THE LEGAL settlement the Los Angeles City Council approved Tuesday with Regency Outdoor Advertising is astonishing, not only because it undermines the city’s recent efforts to gain control of its streetscapes but because it is entirely unnecessary.

In 2002, the City Council passed a billboard ordinance designed to stop legal and illegal sign proliferation. A group of outdoor-advertising companies sued the city, saying the ordinance’s fees were excessive and a violation of free-speech protections. The city has won every round in the courts, but with victory in sight, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo threw in the towel. If this were a boxing match, people of a skeptical bent might wonder if someone fixed the fight.

Regrettably, this Regency settlement — and two pending deals with Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor that involve significantly more billboards — will result in more blight, not less. After the City Council votes to approve the settlements, the whole issue will land in the hands of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose veto may be the last chance for saving the city from becoming a giant, tacky infomercial.

Under the proposed settlements with Clear Channel and CBS, the minuscule number of billboards to be removed is dwarfed by the 840 new ones that would be erected, either in the form of double-faced signs or electronic signs that would ratchet visual blight to new levels. No one knows how many illegal signs would be removed, or when, and lowered fees would make it more difficult for the city to enforce the rules.

Why would anyone charged with enforcing the law agree to a settlement that rewards the very illegal behavior the original ordinance was trying to combat?

Los Angeles is facing a tactic seen in many other cities across the country. Billboard companies routinely sue when someone tries to enforce regulations about signs, claiming rights and privileges that just don’t exist. They count on city officials caving in and offering “settlements” that grant concessions that the original ordinance didn’t authorize. That’s exactly what’s happened in Los Angeles, even though the law and court precedents are on the city’s side.

There is no 1st Amendment right to have a billboard. (There are, however, constitutional protections related to the content of signs once you allow them.) Basic sign-control law has been settled for 25 years, but that doesn’t stop sign companies from pretending it hasn’t.

In fact, it’s worth noting that the city just won a big fight against Regency Outdoor, which went to court to try to force Los Angeles to cut down public trees to provide a clear view of private signs. The city fought to protect its trees and aesthetic values, then abandoned those values in this case, which is all about the blight behind the trees. The alleged influence of campaign contributions aside — billboard companies contributed thousands to Delgadillo and some City Council campaigns — this flip-flop is hard to understand.

But this isn’t just a local legal fight. It’s part of a bigger battle for control of the urban environment that is being waged in every city in the country.

In many cities, including Los Angeles, gargantuan vinyl signs drape entire buildings, encasing them as if they were enormous burritos. Almost any blank wall that faces the street is painted with advertising “murals.” Ads are on bus shelters and the buses themselves.

The outdoor-advertising industry is even experimenting with billboards that will dial your cellphone as you drive or stroll past them. A sort of “Blade Runner” dystopia is emerging, in which every sense is bombarded with commercial messages.

This commercialization of the public realm is robbing our cities and towns of their character. Shouldn’t Los Angeles’ neighborhoods be more than just convenient engines for sign company profits and backdrops for underwear ads?

Obviously, one of the primary purposes of urban life is commerce, but does that mean that we should be forced to live inside a commercial?

It’s no surprise that an industry that forces its product on captive audiences would use legal tactics to intimidate communities into accepting something they don’t want. Los Angeles isn’t the only city in court with the billboard industry; it’s hard to find one that isn’t.

Industry lawyers are invading small towns across the country and suing to bring down long-established sign ordinances that prohibit billboards. The goal is to force either capitulation or a settlement, even though these towns don’t want the signs.

There is a lot at stake here. Every time a winnable battle against these bullying legal tactics is unnecessarily abandoned, the nation’s communities lose a little bit of their right to control their environments, and the integrity of the law itself is weakened.

Villaraigosa has championed the beautification of Los Angeles, calling for the planting of a million trees. He understands that the aesthetic quality of the urban environment is essential to the city’s future.

If the City Council and city attorney, burdened by cozy relationships with the industry, won’t get up off the mat, the mayor should step in. A million trees won’t help beautify Los Angeles if you can’t see them behind the billboards. The mayor needs to override the council’s actions and put Los Angeles back in the fight.