California Sign Ordinance Causes Problems for Los Angeles

Empty billboard, by nightIn almost every city, outdoor signs can be found on rooftops, walls, and awnings, standing alone by buildings, hanging as banners, and even displayed on the sides of cars and trucks. However, there are few places where this type of marketing is as concentrated as in Los Angeles. Here, billboards cluster on each side of every roadway, advertising everything from designer jeans to plastic surgery, jostling for space and attention. Now, a City Hall council is attempting to control these displays. But the committee is struggling with regulations and protocols that have long been routine.

Take City Councilman Jose Huizar, for example: in late January, outdoor marketing company Lamar Advertising put up 100 free billboards from Boyle Heights to Highland Park, supporting his March 3 re-election campaign. At least a dozen of these billboards had outstanding permit issues, creating an ironic message for Huizar, who is the chair of the planning committee attempting to enforce sign laws in LA.

But the problem stretches beyond the re-election campaign: an estimated 951 city billboards, many with more than one sign face, are currently missing some form of city permit. Many of these displays have outstanding permit issues, such as two signs on a pole where only one is allowed. Others have no permit on record whatsoever. The council committee is reportedly considering a number of different initiatives to handle these signs, including outright removal and improved registration programs. However, a state law has created a sizable loophole that makes it difficult to proceed.

Under California State Law, a billboard is assumed to be legal as long it has been in place for five years without receiving a notice of violation. This legislation was sponsored by sign companies in the 1983, who argued that poor record-keeping and the age of the signs themselves had caused many permits to be lost or destroyed. To keep the peace with the reportedly litigious industry, lawmakers decided to put the impetus on sign inspectors. But while it may have helped avoid lawsuits, it also made it difficult for the city to effectively pursue offenders: even if the small team of inspectors successfully discovers an offending billboard before they reach the five year mark, the government would be required to pay the owner “just compensation,” which could cost more than $1 million.

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to correct this situation: in 2007, for example, then-state Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas attempted to revise the law through Senate Bill 563. If passed, this motion would have removed the five-year rebuttal presumption and allowed the city to remove offending billboards without compensation. Unsurprisingly, Ridley-Thomas’s bill was defeated at the urging of lobbyists from the sign industry, and similar efforts in 2009 followed suit.

Now, the responsibility seems to have fallen to City Hall, but many seem to disagree on the proper course of action. Last year, planning officials recommended that all billboards lacking a permit be legalized, although they did encourage enforcing signs that have been altered since their original permit was issued. Others have continued to place the blame on the city for failing to maintain proper records and paperwork. Meanwhile, politicians like Huizar have focused on rewriting LA’s sign ordinance, a change they say could decrease the number of places eligible for new billboards by 90%. However, Huizar’s opponents are skeptical of his efforts: why should he focus on creating an effective way to reduce signage, they say, when the current industry gives him free advertising?

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