Wording that would prohibit the inclusion of billboards near the Ballona Wetlands has been inserted into city documents that are part of a new proposed citywide sign ordinance, which would make the ecological reserve ineligible for outdoor signs, says a Los Angeles Planning Department official.
And state agencies with regulatory authority in the wetlands would give careful examination to any outdoor signs near its boundaries.
“Sign districts cannot be established within 500 feet of an ecological reserve or properties abutting scenic highways,” states a recent letter to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo from Gail Goldberg, the director of the Planning Department.
Although the intersection of Lincoln and Culver boulevards, which lies within the coastal zone, has been listed in city planning documents as an area that is eligible for an outdoor sign district, the provision will prevent any billboards near the wetlands, city officials say.
“This will, in effect, prohibit any billboards in the Ballona Wetlands,” Alan Bell, a senior planner with the city government, told The Argonaut.
A digital billboard at the Culver Boulevard exit of the Marina Freeway that sits on land near the wetlands is owned by Playa Vista and is not considered part of the ecological reserve.
Bell said that the clause was inserted at a City Council planning and land use committee meeting at the request of Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the area that includes the wetlands.
A billboard district in or near the Ballona Wetlands would likely face considerable scrutiny by the California Department of Fish and Game, which owns the ecological area.
“If it’s within state Fish and Game boundaries, (the city) would need our authorization,” said Terri Stewart, supervising biologist at the state agency. “We would need to review any ordinance (regarding the Ballona Wetlands) and we would also have to look at placement and compatibility, as well as lease and ecological issues.”
In addition, Los Angeles might be required to go through a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, because a sign district would be considered development, Stewart said.
Last January, a mitigated negative declaration, one of the mildest forms of environmental review, was published for the project, which determined “that this project would not have a significant effect on the environment.”
Local environmental organizations are outraged that the planning authorities have listed the Ballona Wetlands as a designation suitable for a sign district, which is a component of the new sign ordinance that the City Council is overhauling and will be considering later this year.
Twenty-one locations, primarily commercial centers, including the Promenade at the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester and Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport could be chosen for new billboard locations when the council considers the ordinance.
A moratorium on all new billboards, traditional and digital, is in place, and last month the City Council voted to extend the sign ban for an additional 90 days, which begins on June 24th.
Despite its appearance on city maps as a possible destination, Bell says the language that the committee inserted will nullify any attempt to allow a billboard company to install outdoor signs near the wetlands.
“Even though it is still considered a designated area, the language in the proposed ordinance supercedes the designation,” Bell explained.
Some environmental advocates are not satisfied that there is a stipulation that would exclude the ecological reserve from becoming inundated with billboards. Environ- mentalist Marcia Hanscom would like to see it removed from all city planning documents.
“(The Ballona Wetlands site) still has to come off the map,” said Hanscom, co-director of the Ballona Institute in Playa del Rey.
“It’s also important that the language in the ordinance states that all signs, not just sign districts, are not allowed within 500 feet of an ecological preserve,” she added.
The fact that city planners have introduced the 500 feet provision is an important condition, says Stewart, but there would still need to be other considerations.
“(The limit on distance) would be better, but we would still have to take a look at the footprint and the direct and indirect impacts that (a sign district) would have,” the biologist noted. “We have property boundaries that include wetlands and uplands, so we would need to make sure that the boundaries are correct.”
Almost all development within the coastal zone, which contains many wetlands, requires a coastal development permit from either the California Coastal Commission or a local government with a certified Local Coastal Program, according to the California Coastal Act of 1976.
Section 30121of the Public Resources code defines wetlands as “lands within the coastal zone which may be covered periodically or permanently with shallow water and include saltwater marshes, swamps, mudflats, and fens.”
Charles Posner, an analyst with the Coastal Commission, confirmed that billboards in the coastal zone would be required to obtain coastal permits, and he feels that sign companies would be faced with certain challenges installing advertising close to a wetlands.
“I think that it would be very difficult to approve of any development that would obstruct views of the wetlands,” Posner said. “Part of what the Coastal Act requires is that habitat and the views of the wetlands are protected.”
Outdoor advertising firms Regency Outdoors, CBS Outdoors and Clear Channel did not return phone calls for comment.
Others who have worked with organizations related to the rich ecological area seemed taken aback at the thought that the Ballona Wetlands could be eligible to have billboards near or inside its boundaries.
“It’s so incredulous to think that the Planning Commission would even consider proposing a billboard district near the wetlands,” said Sabrina Venskus, an environmental attorney who is a Venice resident.
Rex Frankel of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project was even more blunt.
“The idea of putting any new signs in the Ballona Wetlands is absurd,” Frankel asserted.
The Mar Vista Community Council voted in May to support the city’s proposed sign ordinance, but is against allowing a sign district near the wetlands.
“The Mar Vista Community Council strongly opposes the designation of the Ballona Wetlands as an ‘area eligible to apply for a sign district,’” the motion stated. “We request that this valuable community resource be taken off the list.”
Stewart said that a sign district is not the kind of development that Fish and Game would like to have near the ecological reserve.
“Generally, it is not something that we would want there,” she said.
Posner said that there have been cases when his commission has acted to remove development near the coastal zone if the proper permits had not been secured.
“We’ve had situations where unpermitted development was appealed and then taken down,” Posner said.
Frankel does not think that the Coastal Commission would grant permits to outdoor sign companies.
“I doubt that the commission would approve any billboards near the wetlands,” he said.
Inquiries for comment to Planning Commission President William Roschen and commissioners Sean Burton and Robin Hughes were not returned as of Argonaut press time.