In a move designed to give added time to city agencies working to craft a new policy regarding commercial signs throughout Los Angeles, the City Council voted to extend the current moratorium on digital billboards and super graphics for an additional 45 days.

The February 24th vote came three months after the council issued its first ban on billboards following a barrage of complaints from residents of the 11th District, which has 563 commercial signs on its major thoroughfares.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the 11th District, made the motion to extend the ban, along with three of his council colleagues — then councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who was elected city controller on March 3rd, and councilmen Jack Weiss and Eric Garcetti.

“We have 34 illegal billboards in our neighborhoods in District 11, and they are an obvious blight on our visual landscape and pose a serious safety hazard to my constituents,” Rosendahl said in an interview after the vote. “An additional 45 days to find out exactly where we stand in terms of revenue streams and how many of these billboards are legal is critical in order to create an ordinance that is fair to everyone.”

The Planning Commission is reviewing the existing municipal sign policy as part of the moratorium on commercial signs and outdoor advertising in Los Angeles.

Dennis Hathaway, a Venice homeowner who has spearheaded the fight to catalog and eliminate illegal billboards on the Westside, cheered the council’s decision.

“This now gives the Planning Commission more time to have a new sign policy in place before the moratorium expires,” said Hathaway, who heads the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

Billboards were featured prominently in the Fifth District City Council race, which like its 11th District neighbor has seen a wave of digital signs and supergraphics sweep into its neighborhood over the last several years.

Nearly all of the candidates in that race proposed some method of punitive action against illegal billboards, ranging from daily fines to additional enforcement by the department of Building and Safety, the city agency charged with maintaining an inventory of the number of legal and illegal signs.

Not everyone agrees that the billboards should be banned.

“I don’t have a problem with them as much as some people do,” Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, told The Argonaut. “It’s not as bad as it is in Las Vegas, where you see billboards practically everywhere.”

Proponents of commercial signs point to a December poll that stated that over 70 percent of Los Angeles residents who have seen an outdoor sign think that they can provide “a service to the community.”

According to the survey of 400 county residents, which was paid for by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, among those who noticed a digital billboard in the last 30 days, 47 percent thought they were attractive and 42 percent said they made the commute “more interesting.”

The survey was conducted between December 19th and 29th, shortly after the first ban was implemented.

The outdoor advertising industry believes that those numbers demonstrate that the anti-billboard activists are in the minority in their opposition to digital signs.

“It’s pretty clear that people in Los Angeles County see digital billboards as a way to help the community,” said association spokesman Jeff Golimowski. “There’s not this groundswell of opposition that some would have you believe there is.”

Redick, a hotel executive who uses the freeways regularly, believes that certain billboards are useful to inform the public of emergencies or important traffic or safety matters, such as flood warnings or an Amber Alert.

Hathaway dismissed the survey as “self-serving” and pointed out that the outdoor advertising industry and billboard companies funded the poll.

“It’s like when the tobacco companies published studies that said that cigarettes were not harmful to your lungs,” he said.

Hathaway also mentioned that many communities have not been as inundated with commercial signage and supergraphics as Westside neighborhoods have been.

“A lot of areas of the city have not been exposed to them, so there are many people who don’t have the same experience with (billboards),” Hathaway noted.

The council also backs a proposal by Assemblyman Mike Feuer that would impose a statewide ban for two years on digital signs. Feuer’s legislation, Assembly Bill 109, would prohibit the digital billboards from being built, converted from traditional billboards, enhanced or modified until January 1st, 2012.

Companies that violate the proposed law would be fined up to $3,500 a day.

“I’m very cautious about the regulation of media by local and state governments,” said Redick.

The Neighborhood Council president scoffed at the notion that many find outdoor commercial advertising less than esthetically pleasing.

“When did we get the design and quality control police department deciding what’s unattractive and what isn’t? Companies should be allowed to make money,” Redick said.

Rosendahl supports AB 109.

“(Feuer’s bill) gives more muscle to what we’re trying to do locally,” said the councilman.

Redick acknowledged that digital billboards can be problematic in a residential neighborhood and feels that some can be a road hazard if they are extremely bright. But he questioned the wisdom of banning outdoor signs, which generated millions of dollars in revenue to the city coffers during a drawn out recession.

“In a time when there are many other important things to worry about, where do our elected officials look to for replacement revenue?” he asked.

The Planning Commission will meet on Wednesday, March 18th, to craft its new sign policy.

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