How not to reg­u­late signs in L. A.

Some City Coun­cil mem­bers want to grant amnesty to hun­dreds of ques­tion­ably le­gal bill­boards.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

This week, City Coun­cil mem­bers will be­gin de­bat­ing whether to make Los An­ge­les uglier. How? By evis­cer­at­ing a pro­posed or­di­nance that would sharply cur­tail where new, bright, blink­ing dig­i­tal bill­boards can be in­stalled. In­stead, they’re con­sid­er­ing al­low­ing sign com­pa­nies, which spend gen­er­ously on lo­cal po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, to put up bill­boards pretty much wher­ever and when­ever they want, if they can per­suade city of­fi­cials to sign off on the per­mits.

To make mat­ters worse, some coun­cil mem­bers want to ig­nore the ad­vice of their own city at­tor­ney and grant amnesty to hun­dreds of ques­tion­ably le­gal bill­boards that might oth­er­wise be taken down.

Ap­par­ently L. A.’ s lead­ers have not learned from past mis­takes. More than a decade ago, un­der pres­sure from res­i­dents who were tired of the pro­lif­er­a­tion of un­sightly signs and a clut­tered skyline, the City Coun­cil passed a ban on new off- site signs — those that ad­ver­tise prod­ucts and ser­vices sold else­where. But then coun­cil mem­bers carved out so many ex­cep­tions to the ban that they es­sen­tially ren­dered it mean­ing­less. Sign com­pa­nies sued, the city spent lots of money fight­ing the law­suits, and even­tu­ally it won a judg­ment that af­firmed its right to limit new bill­boards. How­ever, the court was clear: The city can’t grant ex­cep­tions to the ban “willy- nilly.” Los An­ge­les needs clear, ob­jec­tive rules on where and when signs are banned — and where and when they can be al­lowed.

In re­sponse to that rul­ing, the Plan­ning Depart­ment and the city at­tor­ney’s of­fice crafted a rea­son­able, thought­ful pro­posal. The or­di­nance would main­tain the ban in roughly 90% of the city and al­low new bill­boards only in some 20 des­ig­nated “sign dis­tricts,” com­mer­cial ar­eas such as down­town and Hol­ly­wood where big, bold signs fit the vis­ual aes­thetic. In or­der to put up new signs in a dis­trict, com­pa­nies would have to take down signs else­where.

The plan may have been rea­son­able, but the coun­cil wasn’t sat­is­fied. Its Plan­ning and Land Use Com­mit­tee asked staff to re­port on how the city could per­mit dig­i­tal bill­boards out­side sign dis­tricts as well.

Why would coun­cil mem­bers want to al­low dig­i­tal bill­boards vir­tu­ally any­where? The short an­swer is money. The city could ne­go­ti­ate a cut of the advertising rev­enue to help fund po­lice and street paving. Or it could im­pose mit­i­ga­tion fees and com­mu­nity ben­e­fits agree­ments to help pay for side­walks, streetscapes or other beau­ti­fi­ca­tion ef­forts. Sign com­pa­nies also ar­gue that the city could man­date the re­moval of sev­eral old or poorly lo­cated bill­boards in re­turn for al­low­ing one new dig­i­tal sign. And, they say, if a coun­cil mem­ber and the com­mu­nity are will­ing to ac­cept a bill­board in ex­change for ben­e­fits, what’s wrong with that?

But that raises trou­bling ques­tions: Will some neigh­bor­hoods feel forced to ac­cept bill­boards sim­ply to get ba­sic ameni­ties such as side­walks or street lights? Is a com­mu­nity’s vis­ual en­vi­ron­ment a com­mod­ity to be sold? And who gets to de­cide whether the trade- off is worth it? The loud­est ad­vo­cacy group? The coun­cil mem­ber, who likely ben­e­fited from the in­dus­try’s cam­paign spend­ing? ( Ma­jor sign com­pa­nies have spent more than $ 200,000 on di­rect do­na­tions and in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­tures on be­half of elected city of­fi­cials over the last three years.)

The bill­board de­bate re­flects the larger prob­lem with plan­ning and land use in Los An­ge­les: Ev­ery­thing is ne­go­tiable. A devel­oper wants to build a high- rise tower on a lot zoned for a low- rise build­ing? Just get the coun­cil mem­ber to sign off on a zone change. A sign com­pany wants to put a dig­i­tal bill­board out­side a sign dis­trict? Just of­fer enough perks to get the coun­cil mem­ber or the neigh­bors to back the con­di­tional- use per­mit. De­ci­sions are made pro­ject by pro­ject, and there’s no cer­tainty for the com­mu­nity or ad­her­ence to a larger vi­sion of what the city should look like.

But en­force­ment, es­pe­cially, should not be ne­go­tiable. That’s why it’s so wor­ri­some that some coun­cil mem­bers want to grant amnesty to the 937 bill­boards that lack per­mits or are out of com­pli­ance with their per­mits. City Atty. Mike Feuer has op­posed amnesty and said the city could go af­ter at least 391 of those signs, which were al­tered in vi­o­la­tion of their per­mits, and pos­si­bly more if city in­ves­ti­ga­tors could build the case. Amnesty would be a gift worth thou­sands, even mil­lions of dol­lars for sign com­pa­nies.

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