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Editorial: L.A. should move forward with proposed city regulation of billboards

A billboard near the 10 Freeway in East L.A. The city's ban on certain billboards was invalidated last month by a state judge.
(Los Angeles Times)

For a while, it seemed like Los Angeles had finally figured out how to regulate billboards. After more than a decade of multiple ordinances and multiple lawsuits, resulting in conflicting rulings that tied up enforcement of the laws, it looked as though the legal haze had cleared. City officials, guided by federal court rulings that spelled out how to limit new signs without infringing on free speech, were getting close to enacting a new citywide law that would establish — once and for all — the rules on where and under what conditions companies could put up new billboards.

But a recent state court decision has again thrown L.A.'s sign rules into limbo. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin decided last month that the city’s 2002 ban on new billboards and other “off-site” signs — those that advertise products and services sold elsewhere — violates the free-speech clause of the California Constitution, which is broader than the free-speech protections of the U.S. Constitution. Lavin sided with sign company Lamar Central Outdoor, which had argued that city law unfairly prohibited new off-site signs while allowing businesses to put up commercial signs advertising products and services sold on the property where the sign was located. The city was, in effect, regulating signs based on their content, the judge concluded, because it would allow a sign that said “Joe’s Bagels Sold Here,” but not a sign in the same location that said “Joe’s Bagels — 1 mile ahead.”

Lavin’s decision shocked the city attorney’s office, as well as the planners and advocates who thought they were working within the rules. Indeed, city officials have spent the last several years following a road map laid out by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to develop what they hoped would be a lawsuit-proof ordinance banning new signs in most of the city, but allowing them in narrowly defined “sign districts.” Lavin’s ruling undermines the proposal.

The decision was deeply disappointing for anyone who has watched the city struggle with how to control the visual landscape. L.A. has about 6,000 billboards, with commercial signs towering over residential neighborhoods and cluttering the horizon. The advent of electronic displays only makes matters worse: Today’s billboards can bring blinking, glaring, distracting advertising to city streets. The question for the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti is, what to do now? City Atty. Mike Feuer has already said he intends to appeal, and he will request a stay that, if granted, would mean the city doesn’t have to process the applications for 45 digital billboards filed by Lamar.

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In the meantime, L.A. leaders should move forward with the proposed citywide sign ordinance. Los Angeles is long past due for a comprehensive approach to regulating billboards, and the draft law is a good compromise that would be even better with some modest tweaks. It’s true, there is a risk that an appellate court will throw out the new ordinance. Frankly, there will never be a perfect time to pass this law. Sign companies have proved again and again that they will sue over every new rule. And why not? Billboards and supergraphics that shroud buildings in ads are extraordinarily profitable, so fighting back in the courts makes financial sense for the companies.

The problem is that the lack of a consistent, transparent regulatory scheme and the City Council’s unwise decisions to grant exemptions from the 2002 sign ban — “willy nilly,” as one judge scolded — has left the city vulnerable to lawsuits. Indeed, Lavin in his ruling dismisses the existing regulations, noting that the city banned new billboards to reduce traffic hazards and to protect the visual environment, yet has authorized 15,000 signs since the ban was enacted. That includes about 100 digital billboards allowed under a terrible, near-secret settlement agreement that was later deemed illegal; the signs were ordered to go dark.

Obviously there is a need for clear, objective rules on where and when signs are banned — and where and when they can be allowed. Under current law, council members are free to cut deals with developers or sign companies to create new sign districts, and exceptions have become the rule. Theoretically, almost all 469 square miles of the city could be designated as a sign district. The proposed ordinance, by contrast, would allow new sign districts for digital and static billboards only in major commercial centers such as downtown, which make up about 10% of the city’s land.

Even within those districts, the draft law would require that companies remove at least one billboard or offer a community benefit, such as landscaping or sidewalk repair, for every new billboard they install. (The city could — and should — require that companies remove more than one in return for the right to put up new billboards.) In addition, the proposal would hike penalties for illegal billboards or supergraphics to $48,000 a day. The current fines are so low that it’s more profitable for scofflaws to put up illicit signs and accept the punishment as the cost of doing business.

Even though the proposed ordinance allows new digital billboards in sign districts, there is still tremendous pressure on city leaders to change it to allow more electronic signage outside the districts. Sign companies want more and more space here in one of the nation’s biggest media markets, nonprofits want free advertising and public employee unions have proposed tapping electronic billboards as a new revenue source for the city. But if the City Council and the mayor have learned anything from the last decade of billboard bedlam, they should be exceedingly wary of watering down L.A.'s much-needed and comprehensive sign law before it’s even adopted.

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