Politics

LA may soften proposal to limit billboards

A proposal for strict regulations that would bar new billboards outside of narrowly drawn sign districts may be watered down by the Los Angeles City Council.
A proposal for strict regulations that would bar new billboards outside of narrowly drawn sign districts may be watered down by the Los Angeles City Council.
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A proposal for strict regulations that would bar new billboards outside of narrowly drawn sign districts appears at risk of being watered down by a group of Los Angeles City Council members.

That was the indication this week from members of the council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee, known as PLUM.

During a meeting Tuesday, members of the committee expressed skepticism about a plan from LA's Citywide Planning Commission, which recommended banning any new billboards outside of sign districts.

At one point, Councilman Jose Huizar chastised the planning commission for "an unusual move that I have rarely seen, kind of grabbed that sign ordinance and redid it."

The PLUM committee ordered staff members to explore more lenient options, including one in which the city would partner with billboard companies and share revenue.

For years, the city has been trying to develop an ordinance to regulate the number and placement of billboards, particularly digital billboards that drawn criticism as being too bright and distracting for drivers.

Past proposals have been delayed by litigation, changes in elected and appointed officials and pressure from sign companies.

"Because of the change of council members with new members on this committee, and because the commission had untraditionally moved to usurp an action by this committee, we are now here again," Huizar said at Tuesday's meeting.

Cut L.A. in on sign revenue?

A city staff proposal reviewed by the PLUM committee could let the city share income from new signs in exchange for letting the companies keep more of their old signs in place.

The Planning Commission wanted to require billboard companies to take down five to 10 square feet of old billboards  for every one square foot of new billboards that go up. The takedown requirement would be more for digital billboards, less for traditional ones.

But a group of city department heads,  in a joint report to the council committee, said that plan would discourage sign companies from taking down any old billboards.

Their alternative proposal calls for an 8:1 takedown ratio, but allow billboard companies the more favorable 6:1 ratio if they paid the city a percentage of their revenue, or even a 4:1 ratio if they paid the city even more.

The percentages or gross dollar amounts the city might earn were not specified in the joint report from the City Administrative Officer, Legislative Analyst, Building & Safety and Planning departments.

The report said the Planning Commission's strict rules did not offer enough of an incentive to remove old billboards. The report concluded the commission proposal would also keep the city from reaping the benefits that could be conditions of new sign installation, like public art projects, transit subsidies, safety improvements or free ad space for nonprofit groups.

The report proposed that the PLUM committee allow up to 150 new billboards outside of sign districts in order to "fill this incentive gap, spread community benefits beyond areas (close to) to sign districts and generate additional revenue for the city."

Essentially, the city would partner with billboard companies to share revenue while allowing more old billboards to remain in place.

Huizar chairs the PLUM committee where the idea is under consideration. What happens in the committee matters because its recommendations are often approved by the full city council without changes. Huizar said he was not endorsing the revenue idea but wanted to know how much the city could earn and how many billboards might be removed.
    
"We're looking for mechanisms that would allow us or incentivize billboard companies and the city to take these down," Huizar said.

The department heads' report and the revenue-sharing proposal were prepared in response to a request last May from PLUM committee members.

Committee members also asked for an inventory of city parcels that could be used to erect billboards and collect rent payments. The committee renewed the request on Tuesday.

Jason Killeen is a senior administrative analyst with the City Administrative Officer. He said city staffers were not advocating the approaches detailed in the report, merely offering them as options for the council to explore.

Sign opponents like Barbara Broide of Westwood favor the Planning Commission's stricter proposal and oppose the city taking a share of billboard revenue. She said the revenue-sharing idea should be reviewed by the city's many neighborhood councils before the PLUM Committee votes.
    
"I have a lot of difficulty with condoning the trading of our visual environment, the public safety of drivers, in exchange for an undisclosed amount of money," Broide said.
    
All these proposed new rules concern so-called "off-site" billboards, that is, signs that are put up away from the businesses they promote. Signs that are on the premises of the businesses they promote are covered under a different set of rules.

As has become common at city hearings on billboards, a stream of union representatives and business groups lined up to praise the more lenient rules because they are seen as increasing job opportunities and business-friendly. A number of nonprofit groups, some who have benefited from free ad space donated by billboard companies, also support the ordinance.

Comparing proposals from the PLUM Committee and Planning Commission 

Signs outside sign districts

Commission: Would bar any new billboards outside of sign districts. For every square foot of new signage that goes up, five square feet of old signs must come down. For digital billboards, the commission wants a 10:1 takedown ratio. The old signs would come down in neighborhoods close to the new signs.
    
Council options: Would permit up to 150 new billboards outside of sign districts. The takedown ratio would be 8:1 if billboard companies share no revenue with the city or it could be 6:1 or 4:1 if the companies share a percentage of their sign income. Half the signs to be removed would be near the new signs, the other half could be anywhere in the city.

The 150 new signs could be negotiated via relocation agreements that would have to undergo environmental reviews and public hearings, the city staff report said.
    
Amnesty for unpermitted signs

About 16 percent of all billboards in the city's inventory of 5,629 signs appear not to have valid permits. The report says 391 were altered or enlarged so much they no longer comply with their original permit. City building inspectors have the authority to order owners to revert the signs back to their original sizes.

Another 525 have no record of a permit. One of the challenges the council faces is what to do about those. A state law gives those signs legal status if the city lacks a record of a permit but has failed to take any enforcement action within five years.

Commission: The Citywide Planning Commission recommends those signs not be given amnesty in the form of legal permits.
    
Council options: The PLUM Committee has previously favored grandfathering the signs that have no permits as a way to avoid lawsuits. The committee on Tuesday asked for a report from city staff on how the commission proposal could increase the number of sign inspectors to enforce city billboard laws.
    
Fees

The current sign inspection fee of $170 is paid twice a year. But it's too low to pay for the city's enforcement of billboard laws, so the report said the council could increase the fees to improve enforcement.

How did we get here?

It's complicated.

The city council banned new billboards in 2002. Legal challenges from billboard companies followed, and eventually, the city won its case.  While the issue was dragging through the courts, the council drafted a new billboard ordinance in 2009. It was reviewed by the Citywide Planning Commission and returned to the City Council, where it underwent more changes in 2014. Those changes went back to the Planning Commission for review and in October, the commission voted approval of its very strict proposal. That is now under review by the PLUM committee, and will be considered at a meeting that could occur as early as next month.