Why hundreds of billboards that violate LA city permits escape enforcement

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When the Los Angeles Citywide Planning Commission votes Thursday on what new rules it wants the City Council to pass governing the size, placement and lighting of billboards, it will also recommend whether nearly 1,000 billboards that violate city standards should escape enforcement action.

Last month, the commission appeared ready to oppose an amnesty for 546 billboards that have no city permit on record, and another 391 billboard that have permits but were altered without permission. An amnesty would let the billboards remain as non-complying structures.

The  Building and Safety Department, which acts as the city's billboard permitting and enforcement staff, has repeatedly been stymied in attempts to bring the city's 4,000-plus billboards into compliance, said its executive officer Frank Bush.

"We haven't taken any action of writing an order on them because this is all being discussed by the policy makers in the city," Bush said. He said that when the city passes a new sign ordinance, his staff will enforce it.

The department has held off on enforcement actions on errant billboards since about 2009. That's when the Planning Commission presented a proposed ordinance with strict new rules governing billboards. The draft has been in legislative limbo ever since, working its way through the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which has proposed several alterations.

If the Planning Commission votes against an amnesty proposal, it will force the City Council to either agree with the commission and drop the amnesty proposal, or go against the commission.

The commission's members were appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, and were not involved in the original drafting of the 2009 ordinance under former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Garcetti has not yet taken a position on billboard amnesty or other aspects of the sign ordinance, said his spokeswoman Connie Llanos.

There are two kinds of signs that have escaped city enforcement, those with permits and those without. The ones with permits are easier to attack legally than those without permits, according to City Attorney Mike Feuer.

Some 391 signs have permits, but were altered without permission. Most were single-face billboards onto which a second billboard was added. Or the billboard was made bigger or taller without permission. Because the signs have permits, the city is in possession of evidence that could be used to prosecute sign companies for violations.

A second kind of billboard are the 546 signs for which the city has no permit on record. Those signs might have been erected without a permit, or they might have once had a permit that the city lost track of. Such billboards, if they remain unchallenged by the city for at least five years, enjoy the benefit of a state law that says they are presumed legal. The burden of proof to take them down shifts to the city, which would have to prove a negative -- that the signs never had a permit.

And because the process of passing the citywide sign ordinance has taken so long, it's possible some illegally erected billboards may have passed their fifth year, possibly establishing a case for legal status.

Billboard companies could be fined $2,500 dollars a day per illegal sign if the City took them to court and won a judgment.
"If a billboard is out of compliance with its permit, I stand ready, my office stands ready, to bring an enforcement action against them," Feuer said, referring to both types of violating signs.

"I don't think there should be special treatment for billboard companies in general. I also don't think that in specific terms that these billboards that violate the permits that they have should be getting a free pass," he said.
But Feuer says his hands are tied because the Building and Safety Department won't refer any complaints to his office and that he cannot act independent of such complaints.

"Buiding and Safety has stated publicly that it will not be enforcing with regard to these billboards until the city council makes a decision whether to grant amnesty to billboards that are out of compliance," Feuer said.

All this stalling and inaction on billboard enforcement annoys people like Barbara Broide. She's president of the Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association and sits on the board of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

"They're definitely getting a free ride," she said of the billboard companies that have doubled up  sign faces without city permission. "They're reaping free income, which we would consider to be not allowed. They're not paying fines and fees. This is a city that's strapped for money," she said.

A spokeswoman for the billboard industry declined requests for an interview about this.

But a billboard company executive who went before the Planning Commission last month says amnesty is the only fair resolution for signs that have permits if the city forgives the 546 other signs.

"In fairness it equally needs to extend amnesty to signs that were put up with permits but that have minor, often innocently created non-compliances as well," said David Recht of Summit Media.
What to do about billboards that flout the city's permit system is only one part of the very complicated citywide sign ordinance that is slowly making its way through City Hall.

It will say whether new billboards -- including light-up  digital signs -- would be limited to a few busy commercial districts. It'll govern how many old billboards must be taken down when new billboards go up. How big, how bright, how close to homes, what exceptions might be allowed -- the ordinance runs dozens of pages.

But to residents like Barbara Broide -- weary of visual clutter on city streets -- the answer is simple: "These signs need to be looked at and fined accordingly."

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