Business & Economy

LA panel debates future of digital billboards (Updated)

L.A. councilmembers are debating where to allow new outdoor signs.
L.A. councilmembers are debating where to allow new outdoor signs.
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Updated 6:30 p.m.

Close to 50 people testified before the Los Angeles City Council Planning and Land Use Committee Tuesday afternoon, most of them there to share their support for bringing back digital signs.

A court case led to dozens of digital signs going dark a couple years ago. But it was clear from the wide array of groups packing council chambers that many want them turned back on. 

Those who testified represented everyone from sign operators such as Clear Channel to those who use billboards to advertise, including the film industry, car dealers, and non-profit organizations such as the Gay Men's Chorus.

Unions representing workers and community activists said workers were missing out on jobs during the ongoing limbo over the signs.

"That money is being left on the table," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. "It’s time we move this thing forward. Please."

But neighborhood leader Joyce Foster says digital billboards are a blight on the city.

"A billboard doesn’t bring jobs," Foster said. "If the city needs money there’s other ways to do it other than selling our environment."

Community activists condemned a permitting plan that would allow billboard companies to put up signs outside designated areas. 

They also blasted a proposal that would grant amnesty to hundreds of conventional billboards that are missing permits.

Council members ordered staff to keep working on its sign ordinance and will revisit the issue in September. 

- Josie Huang

The future of digital billboards in Los Angeles will be up for debate when a city panel convenes Tuesday to discuss where outdoor signs should be allowed and at what cost.

Councilmembers on the Planning and Land Use Committee are considering restricting new billboards to about 20 commercial corridors in areas such as Hollywood and West L.A.  To put up a new digital billboard, companies would have to take down signs elsewhere in the city.

Neighborhood leaders want the city to tightly regulate digital billboards they say blight the city landscape and distract drivers. But businesses say they're powerful advertising tools in the digital age. And they generate more revenue than conventional "static" signs for billboard companies, which have challenged city regulations in the courts.

Both critics and supporters of digital signs express cautious support for "sign districts.” But neighborhood leaders oppose a proposal that would allow the council to grant exemptions allowing for billboards outside those zones.

The Los Angeles Outdoor Advertising Coalition, which includes companies Clear Channel and Lamar, maintains that in instances where communities located outside sign districts want a particular billboard, they should be given the option.

"We really support a process where by which communities can determine their own destinies," said the coalition's Stacey Miller.

Another divisive issue is a proposal that would grant "amnesty" to hundreds of billboards that lack permits or had a second face added without city approval. The group Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight said that the city should not “reward” scofflaws.

"I think amnesty is just outrageous," said the group's leader, Dennis Hathaway. "The billboard industry is being exempted from complying with city code."

The planning committee meets Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.