A Los Angeles Planning Commission recommendation that a section of the Ballona Wetlands be considered a proposed billboard district has enraged environmental and conservation organizations, which have vowed to fight the proposal.

“Why would anyone even consider a billboard district on or near an ecological preserve?” asked Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute.

Otella Wruck, executive director of the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, said that her organization is opposed to any outdoor advertising near the ecological area.

“There cannot be any billboards within 500 feet of an ecological preserve,” Wruck asserted. “So we are definitely opposed to any billboards on Lincoln Boulevard near the Ballona Wetlands.”

The sign district controversy and where the districts should be located is the latest development in an ongoing debate, pitting the reality of vast sums of money that the city reaps from lucrative contracts from outdoor advertising companies against residents who categorize the brightly lit, large-scale signs as unwelcome obstructions on their visual landscape.

The Los Angeles City Council postponed taking a vote on a new sign ordinance that would include the creation of sign districts on May 27th, ostensibly to allow City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich time to review the recommendations put forth by the commission.

Trutanich, who defeated Councilman Jack Weiss in a May 19th runoff, takes office on July 1st.

Anti-blight advocates like Dennis Hathaway came away discouraged after learning that the ordinance would be postponed.

“I had hoped that they would adopt an ordinance as was approved in March,” said Hathaway, a Venice resident who is the president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

The commission has proposed 21 areas that would be designated as billboard districts throughout Los Angeles, with three of them targeted for the 11th Council District. The Promenade at the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester, Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport and the Ballona Wetlands, near Lincoln and Culver Boulevards, are listed as possible areas where billboards will be allowed under the new ordinance.

City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Venice, Westchester and the area that includes the wetlands, expressed his disapproval with the inclusion of a possible sign district in or near the Ballona Wetlands.

“I would question even why anyone would think about (having a billboard district) in the Ballona Wetlands,” Rosendahl said, echoing Hanscom. “No way will I support signage of any kind in that ecological preserve.”

Hanscom said Weiss assured her at a council planning and land use committee meeting several weeks ago that no billboards would be permitted near the wetlands.

“Clearly, the planning staff must be confused, because (the recommendation for a sign district) has appeared in city documents,” said Hanscom.

The wetlands have been listed in several maps as a possible location for the newly crafted billboard centers.

Wruck allowed for the possibility that including the wetlands in the plans for a proposed sign district could have been a mistake on the part of the commission or its staff.

“Perhaps it was an error, or an oversight from prior recommendations,” she suggested.

Many outdoor sign companies view the billboard centers as an opportunity to expand their commercial presence.

“We would love to be able to grow our business, like any other company that’s in business. And one way could certainly be with a sign district,” said Peter Raulli, vice president of leasing and development for Van Wagner Outdoor, an outdoor advertising firm based in Sherman Oaks that has approximately 500 billboards in Los Angeles. “(Sign districts) could be a way to enhance the visual landscape of Los Angeles.”

CBS Outdoors and Clear Channel, the two sign companies that have the most billboards in the 11th District with 136 and 143 respectively, did not return calls for comment.

Planning Commissioner Cindy Monta“ez believes that the wetlands should be off limits to sign companies.

“The Ballona Wetlands should remain wetlands, not some billboard wasteland,” Monta“ez, a former state assemblywoman, told The Argonaut.

The council did vote to extend a citywide cessation of new billboards and outdoor signs beginning on June 24th, the day that the current moratorium expires.

The new sign ordinance has been evolving since last December when the council instituted its first three-month moratorium on new billboards and signs throughout the city, including the conversion of traditional signs to digital. In March, the council imposed another 90-day halt to the installation of billboards while it continues to debate how to craft the new legislation.

Several outdoor advertising firms sued Los Angeles in 2002 following an attempt by city officials to ban billboards, claiming that it violated their First Amendment rights. An appeals court ruled on January 6th that the council was within its legal right to place a prohibition on billboard signs. Metro Lights LLC, an outdoor advertising firm, had argued that the ban violates its First Amendment rights, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the council’s decision to impose the moratorium.

“I’m thrilled that we were able to extend the moratorium to allow (Trutanich and his staff) time to weigh in on the new ordinance,” Rosendahl said.

Monta“ez feels that the moratorium should remain in place until current lawsuits by outdoor advertising firms have been adjudicated.

“A complete moratorium on billboards should continue until the Ninth Circuit Court at minimum issues its decision on the city’s sign districts,” the commissioner said. “There are too many loopholes in the proposed sign ordinance that will cause a proliferation of billboards near people’s homes and protected areas.”

Hanscom said that she also has little faith in billboard firms. The director of the Ballona Institute points to a large digital billboard at the corner of Culver Boulevard and the Marina Freeway, which is considered by many environmentalists to be the eastern portion of the wetlands.

“Billboard companies are not to be taken for granted,” she cautioned. “The fact that the Planning Commission would have it on its list makes me question who’s in charge; the billboard companies or the City Council?”

Wruck is grateful for the continuing moratorium.

“The postponement allows time to research what is appropriate and legal for an ecological preserve,” she said.

Residents like Hathaway, who have been at the forefront of the anti-billboard fight, see the delay in passing a new sign law as a development that will play into the hands of the sign companies.

“I believe that there is a move now to weaken the ordinance,” Hathaway said.

Rosendahl said that is something that he will be watching as well.

“That is part of our concern as well, that the billboard companies will try to water-down the new ordinance,” the councilman acknowledged. “One thing that I would like to see come out of this new set of laws is what are the revenue streams for these signs, because in my district, which has been bombarded with this blight, we aren’t getting our fair share (of the revenue streams).”

The council will vote on the new sign ordinance later this summer.

Planning Commission President William Roschen and commissioners Sean Burton, Robin Hughes and Michael Woo did not return calls for comment.

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