billboard ordinance postponed

BY GARY WALKER

A lawsuit brought by Liberty Media Group against the City of Los Angeles has been postponed.

The outdoor advertising group has sued the city over a billboard ban enacted several months ago by the City Council that outlaws new digital signs and conversions of traditional billboards to digital.

The council unanimously passed an emergency sign law on August 7th in anticipation of the Liberty Media lawsuit. Several members of the council felt that if the lawsuit were successful, billboard companies would then be able to flood the city with applications for more outdoor signs without a new sign law in place.

Under the emergency sign law, signs that face freeways, digital billboards and multistory supergraphics are outlawed.

A new date has not been scheduled for the hearing, and the emergency ordinance remains in place.

Dennis Hathaway, a Venice resident who leads the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight grassroots organization, feels that city officials can use this reprieve to make the new sign ordinance more specific and more detailed.

“I think that it is incumbent upon the city that they write a detailed sign ordinance that they can put in place,” Hathaway told The Argonaut.

He feels that the revisions recommended by the Planning Commission last March, which include restrictions on the size and placement of signs and tougher new penalties to deter companies and property owners from installing illegal billboards and supergraphic signs, should be included.

City officials are in the midst of revamping the municipal sign law and are seeking to craft an ordinance that will have more regulation on outdoor advertising, an industry that generates millions of dollars for the city but in many communities is viewed as visual blight. The Westside has become a haven for sign companies in recent years and complaints from a coalition of local lawmakers, residents and artists have forced the City Council to consider stronger regulation of supergraphics and billboard advertising.

The council passed three 90-day outdoor sign moratoriums that halted billboards throughout the city beginning last December, much to the chagrin of outdoor advertising firms and business organizations.

Liberty Media contends in court papers that the city has not followed the correct state procedures required to extend temporary sign moratoriums.

Calls to Mayer Brown, the law firm representing Liberty Media, were not returned at Argonaut press time.

Hathaway believes that the current ban on signs will be challenged in court as well.

He mentioned that Sheri Bonstelle, a City Hall lobbyist whose law firm represents a company that has been fighting to keep a supergraphic on the side of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, stated at the August 7th council meeting that its decision to enact the ban could invite more lawsuits.

“You’re not creating the solution that you desire,” Bonstelle told the council.

“That indicates to me that the billboard companies will be challenging the emergency ordinance, sooner or later,” Hathaway said.

Bonstelle thinks that smaller billboard companies might file legal actions against the city’s ordinance.

“It seeks to remove their livelihood,” Bonstelle, an attorney with Century City-based Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro, said.

Environmental activists also feel that this is a good time to clarify the city’s position on the 21 proposed sign district locations. Although planning officials have told The Argonaut that there are no plans to have a sign district near the Ballona Wetlands, the ecological preserve is still listed in planning documents.

Marcia Hanscom, the co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, wants the council to include language that would prohibit a billboard district near the wetlands.

Hanscom’s organization recommends the following amendment:

“No commercial billboards or sign districts shall be allowed within 500 feet of an ecological reserve, state park, coastal lagoon or natural area owned by the state Lands Commission.”

Friends of the Ballona Wetlands Executive Director Lisa Fimiani said that she is still waiting for clarification on the sign district designation.

“But we would certainly oppose any billboards near the wetlands,” she added.

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