An effort spearheaded by Venice resident Dennis Hathaway to take inventory of and eventually halt the proliferation of standard and digital billboards on the Westside has now come to fruition with Los Angeles City Council approval of an ordinance to inspect and count what are thought to be thousands of outdoor advertisements across the city.
The unanimous City Council vote December 5th comes on the heels of a volunteer-driven campaign by Hathaway to call attention to what many residents in Venice and Mar Vista feel has cast a garish and unsightly taint on their neighborhoods over the last several years.
“It’s a significant step for us,” said Hathaway, who heads the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, a Venice organization that is seeking to reduce electronic and traditional billboards in their community. “People have been waiting for this for a long time.”
In October, several dozen volunteers from Venice and Mar Vista spent a weekend cataloging billboards in the 11th Council District, a task that the city was required to undertake following the settlement of a lawsuit brought by two billboard companies six years ago.
The volunteers counted 583 billboards, and 17 were of the digital variety. Lincoln Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, had the most outdoor signage, with 84, followed by Santa Monica Boulevard with 61, Pico Boulevard with 44 and Wilshire Boulevard with 32.
Clear Channel owns the most billboards in the 11th District, with 143 outdoor signs on the major thoroughfares, seven more than CBS Outdoor, which has 136. Vista Media owns 49, Regency Outdoor has 47 and Fuel Outdoor, 43.
There were 34 billboards with no identification, according to the volunteers, although the city’s sign ordinance requires all off-site signs to be clearly labeled with the name of the sign owner, the city permit number, and other information.
In the midst of the cataloging venture, at a press conference on Santa Monica Boulevard, David Lara, assistant deputy supervisor of the city Department of Building and Safety, said that his agency would assist the residents in collecting data on the number of signs in the district and would also work with City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo to determine which companies have permits for their signs.
“It’s a very big task and by far a monumental task to pull this together,” Lara said. “It’s very important for us as a department to make sure that the people’s wishes are executed.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendalhl, who represents the 11th District, has supported his constituents’ campaign to curtail the number of outdoor advertising signs since it began.
“I’m very proud of my constituents who have taken it upon themselves to do what the city should have done a long time ago,” the councilman said. “It was a very empowering moment for me to witness so many of my constituents, especially those from Venice and Mar Vista, who dedicated a weekend of their time to inventory these billboards that have been such a blight on our communities.”
The inspection program that the council voted for December 5th is similar to one that was approved in 2002 that two of the largest billboard companies in the city, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, challenged in court. The sign companies alleged that the city’s action represented an intrusion on their First Amendment rights.
In 2006, the companies agreed to a settlement with the city that would permit 840 of their billboards to be changed to digital displays — a major source of consternation for Rosendahl, Hathaway and others on the Westside.
Chris Nevil, a Del Rey homeowner for over 20 years, is not a fan of what many consider to be an excessive number of digital billboards on the Westside.
“I see these billboards as one of the contributors to the blight that we see on our visual landscape,” Nevil said. “It’s understandable that for those who are in that particular industry the electronic signs are an economic plus during difficult financial times, but it’s an industry that is clearly out of control.”
Last month, in response to residents like Nevil and others who believe that their communities have been inundated with brighter and larger outdoor advertisements, the Planning Commission recommended disallowing the conversion of standard billboards to electronic form for at least 12 months after hearing dozens of complaints from residents across the city who say that in addition to the overabundance of the outdoor signs, motorists can become distracted by the brightly-lit electronic advertisements.
The City Council will consider implementing the proposed moratorium at a later date.
While he believes that the new ordinance is a positive step for Westside communities, Hathaway is dismayed that a moratorium on outdoor signs was not discussed at the council’s Land Use and Planning Committee meeting earlier this month.
“I was surprised and disappointed that wasn’t considered,” he said. “Since that meeting, another digital billboard has been hoisted on 83rd Street and Lincoln [Boulevard] in Westchester.”
Nevil, the president of the Del Rey Homeowners and Neighbors Association, also backs disallowing billboard firms to switch from traditional to digital signs.
“Unless you work for one of these companies, what’s the downside,” he said.
“We need that moratorium now,” Hathaway added. “We needed it yesterday.”
Rosendahl said that when the moratorium on converting traditional signs to electronic comes before the council, he is hopeful that his colleagues would support it. If not, he pledged to push to have a cessation of converting traditional billboards to digital in the 11th District.
“My position is, if our council doesn’t want to move forward with the moratorium, I would like to see it happen in my district,” Rosendahl asserted. “We are ahead of the city in the data that we have collected, and we’re tired of being assaulted by these billboard companies that have no appreciation for our quality of life.”
Rosendahl is also seeking to have fines imposed on companies that own billboards and signs that do not have permits.
Tony Aldwin, a spokesman for Clear Channel, could not be reached for comment before Argonaut press time.