Anti-blight advocates cheered a May 26th ruling by an appellate court that found that Los Angeles city officials did not deny outdoor advertisers their First Amendment rights when the city imposed a ban on billboards and supergraphics last year.
The three-judge panel upheld the city’s right to prohibit new supergraphics and outdoor signs, which have been a boon to the city coffers but are considered blight by activists, artists and some Westside lawmakers, including City Councilman Bill Rosendahl.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa trumpeted the decision as a victory against blight.
“(This) marks a major victory in our battle against unsightly, illegal billboards that have threatened the aesthetic appeal of our communities across the city,” Villaraigosa said in statement. “Los Angeles is a city rich in beauty and culture and the blight caused by supergraphics to our unique urban landscape must not be tolerated.”
The verdict nullifies a 2008 decision by U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, who voided the city’s 2002 sign ordinance. The municipal law, enacted after complaints from neighborhoods weary of a proliferation of outdoors signs in their communities, banned the installation of new billboards and supergraphics except in certain locations, such as special sign districts.
The mayor also thanked City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, with whom he had recently tussled regarding possible cuts to the city attorney’s staff.
“I also want to thank City Attorney Carmen Trutanich and his team for their hard work and effort to protect what is in the best interest of Los Angeles,” Villaraigosa said. “With this decision today, our beautiful and sprawling metropolis can emerge from the shadows of unlawful, unattractive signage and proudly display the unique qualities that make Los Angeles a great place to live, work and play.”
But the ruling also leaves open the possibility for more billboards in the future. Trutanich’s office was seeking to remove unpermitted signs in approximately 40 locations, but the court enjoined the city from doing so.
City Councilman Ed Reyes, who is the chair of the council’s planning committee, mulled over the possibility of reopening a proposal to create 21 billboard districts throughout the city, a recommendation that was considered last year by the council but ultimately rejected.
“There are places that people want to feel urbanized. There are places that want activity and motion,” he said.
The Howard Hughes Center in Westchester and an area along Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport were the sites listed as possible locations by the city’s planning department last year.
Wetlands advocates were alarmed when the Ballona Wetlands was also named as a possible site last year, and some are concerned that the ruling could be seen as a loophole for future signs near the wetlands.
Friends of the Ballona Wetlands Co-Executive Director Richard Beban said the zoning requirements of the land that is occupied by the wetlands has not changed since it was owned by the Howard Hughes Co. several decades ago.
“Our concern has always been the zoning of the land itself,” Beban told The Argonaut. “We would like to close the question of the zoning of the land for its actual use, which is a wetland.”
Trutanich, in an interview with The Argonaut before he took office last July, pledged that no supergraphics or signs would be installed near the ecological preserve.
“It’s not gonna happen,” Trutanich stated.
Alan Bell, a senior planner with the Planning Department, said a provision had been added during discussions about the new sign ordinance last year that would effectively prohibit any outdoor signs near the wetlands.
Bell said that the clause was inserted at a City Council planning and land use committee meeting at Rosendahl’s request.
The intersection of Lincoln and Culver boulevards, which was included on the list of possible billboard district sites, lies in the coastal zone near the eastern edge of the Ballona Wetlands.
A billboard district in or near the ecological preserve 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,” Terri Stewart, supervising biologist at the state agency, explained. “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.”
Los Angeles might be required to go through a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process as well, because a sign district would be considered development, Stewart said.
While some communities and lawmakers are more tolerant of billboards, residents in Rosendahl’s 11th District have been outspoken about their perceived effect on the region’s visual landscape.
“We are unequivocally against having any billboards near the Ballona Wetlands,” Beban said. “This is exactly the kind of thing that can happen after a court ruling, and city officials began looking for other alternatives.”
The appellate ruling marks the third setback for outdoor advertising companies in less than a year. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge struck down the 2006 settlement in a legal action initiated by Santa Monica-based Summit Media, which was not part of the original sign agreement. And Collins ruled against a legal action brought by billboard firms in September that sought to overturn the city’s sign ban.