Anticipating a legal challenge to the existing sign law that could open the floodgates to more billboards, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously August 7th to impose an emergency ordinance that would prevent any new outdoor signs from being erected throughout the city.

Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the 11th District, made an unexpected appearance to cast the deciding vote for the ban.

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

Rosendahl, who is recovering from hernia surgery and is on medical leave, said that he wanted to take part in voting for the ordinance because of its importance to him and his constituents, but also because of the stakes that were involved.

“This is a very important issue, and I did not want to miss it,” the councilman told The Argonaut.

The 12-0 vote came several days before a current moratorium on outdoor signs was set to expire and gives anti-billboard activists and many elected city leaders hope that city officials will be able to rebuff outdoor advertising firms that could take advantage of the upcoming council recess to file applications for new billboards within the city.

Liberty Media Group has filed a legal challenge to the existing ban on digital billboards, supergraphics and other outdoor signs. A hearing is set for Monday, August 17th.

The council decided to vote on the emergency ordinance after meeting with members of the city’s legal team earlier that week.

Before Rosendahl’s appearance in council chambers, there were only 11 members present, and 12 are needed for a quorum for an ordinance vote.

In addition, Councilmembers Bernard Parks and Jan Perry indicated through their remarks that they were leaning toward voting against the emergency ordinance. But after Rosendahl walked into the council chambers, they decided to vote in favor of the sign ban.

“I knew that there weren’t enough members to vote on a special ordinance, so I decided that I should come down and do what my constituents elected me to do,” Rosendahl said.

Billboard companies criticized the ruling, stating that the new prohibition on supergraphics and digital signs could lead to more lawsuits.

There have been previous attempts by outdoor advertising firms to challenge the city’s sign law. 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 company, 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.

Rosendahl said knowing that advocates for the sign companies would be present was another reason why he made the trip from his Mar Vista home to downtown Los Angeles to cast his vote.

“I looked out at them and said, ‘Every (outdoor sign) lobbyist in town is here, so I know that they’re well represented,’” the councilman quipped. “And then I looked out and saw many of my constituents who have done such a great job in fighting for what they believe in, which is stemming the tide of the assault of these billboards.

“And that was enough motivation for me.”

Since December, the council has passed three 90-day temporary sign bans that prohibit outdoor advertising following an outcry of protests from residents who feel that their communities have been targeted with billboards by sign companies, which generate a substantial amount of revenue for the city government.

Westside residents, including those from Venice, Mar Vista and Westchester, have decried the proliferation of billboards over the last several years on their major thoroughfares. Many consider them visual blight and cite the fact that many of the billboards are not on file with the city’s Building and Safety Department, a discovery made by Venice resident Dennis Hathaway and several dozen volunteers during a citizen-organized effort to count the number of outdoor signs in District 11 in November.

During the yearlong revamp of the current city sign ordinance, the Planning Commission has recommended creating 21 sign districts throughout Los Angeles, which would be located largely at commercial centers, such as the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester.

The placements, height, design and volume of billboards has generated a great deal of emotion on the Westside. A proposal to create a sign district located near the Ballona Wetlands has sparked outrage and drawn increased scrutiny and attention from organizations involved in its preservation and also from Rosendahl and City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who has publicly stated his opposition to any billboards near the ecological preserve.

“It’s not gonna happen,” Trutanich told The Argonaut on July 1st, referring to the possibility of a sign district near the Ballona Wetlands.

City planners say that a clause included in the proposed new sign law bans billboards within 500 feet of an ecological preserve and will prevent any outdoor signs from sprouting up near the wetlands. The California Department of Fish and Game, which owns the land, has indicated that it would also need to approve any billboards near the wetlands.

“If it’s within state Fish and Game boundaries, (the city) would need our authorization,” said Terri Stewart, supervising biologist at the state agency. “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.”

Nearly all of the neighborhood councils in Rosendahl’s district have expressed their support for limiting the number of outdoor signs in the area, including the wetlands.

On August 4th, the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa backed a resolution opposing the wetlands sign district proposal that was cheered by local activists who are involved in the restoration of the ecological preserve.

Steve Donell, the chair of the planning and land use committee of the Westchester-Playa council, said that a number of residents had expressed their concerns regarding the possible sign district near the wetlands before his committee and the full board.

“We wanted to formalize what we had been hearing from the community in a more formal way,” Donell explained. “We support preventing encroachment of any type of development near the wetlands.”

The Mar Vista Community Council voted in May to support the city’s proposed sign ordinance, but it is against allowing a sign district near the wetlands.

“The Mar Vista Community Council strongly opposes the designation of the Ballona Wetlands as an ‘area eligible to apply for a sign district,’” the motion stated. “We request that this valuable community resource be taken off the list.”

Rosendahl says that he trusts Trutanich and the city’s legal team, and he is hopeful that the appeals court will uphold the emergency ordinance.

“I have great faith in Carmen. His team helped us put this ordinance together, and I have a lot of confidence in him,” the councilman said.

Attorneys at the Los Angeles branch of Mayer Brown, the law firm representing Liberty Media, did not return phone calls for comment.