A growing campaign to restrict the proliferation of outdoor advertising continues to escalate, as state lawmakers are now considering a two-year moratorium on digital billboards throughout California.
The proposal to impose a statewide ban on electronic billboards, announced January 9th, comes on the heels of a similar municipal ordinance passed by the Los Angeles City Council in December which prohibits the construction and installation of any outdoor advertising and the conversion of traditional signs to digital for three months.
Anti-billboard advocates cheered the state legislators’ moratorium recommendation.
“This is very good news, and very unexpected,” Venice resident Dennis Hathaway told The Argonaut. “It’s a wonder that this wasn’t proposed before now.”
Hathaway is president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, a grassroots organization that has mobilized Westside residents to catalog all outdoor signs in the 11th Council District, which includes Venice, Mar Vista, Del Rey, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista and Westchester.
A trio of Sacramento legislators who are backing the moratorium includes Assemblyman Mike Feuer, who sponsored Measure R, the statewide initiative approved by voters last year that will add $30 billion for transportation projects through the state sales tax.
“We should not be erecting more digital billboards until we know whether they are safe,” Feuer, a former Los Angeles city councilman, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Feuer’s legislation, Assembly Bill 109, would prohibit the digital billboards from being built, converted from traditional billboards, enhanced or modified until January 1st, 2012.
Companies that violate the proposed law would be fined up to $3,500 a day.
Advocates of a moratorium on outdoor advertising cite visual blight and the potential for accidents due to the flashy, bright signs of digital billboards on city streets and freeways.
Hathaway found it interesting that Feuer is the architect of the proposed ban on digital signs. The assemblyman faced off against incumbent Rocky Delgadillo in the Democratic primary for city attorney in 2005. Delgadillo, who was supported by several large outdoor advertising companies, won the primary and later that year the election in November.
“Delgadillo was criticized for receiving donations from these billboard companies,” Hathaway recalled. “I think that’s very ironic that Feuer is behind a moratorium on these outdoor signs.”
Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the largest outdoor sign companies operating in Southern California, which owns 143 billboards in the 11th District, re- portedly was one of several entities that spent $425,000 promot- ing Delgadillo’s candidacy in 2001 as well as that of council candidate Wendy Greuel.
Last year, Delgadillo recommended a six-month moratorium on billboards after the Planning Commission suggested placing a prohibition on new outdoor signs.
While Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl agrees that a statewide ban would be ideal, he is more concerned about keeping these signs out of his council district.
“[Feuer’s proposal] adds more muscle to what we are doing locally,” said the councilman. He credited Hathaway with leading the grassroots campaign to bring attention to the number of outdoor signs that have sprung up in the 11th District in recent years.
“There was a lot of frustration among many of my constituents, and I’m glad we seized the moment to bring other city agencies on board and finally get this moratorium in place,” Rosendahl said.
Outdoor sign firms have attempted to block the Los Angeles ban. 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.
As with the Los Angeles ban on billboards, organizations that represent and support outdoor advertising firms are in opposition to any prohibition on digital conversions. The California State Outdoor Advertising Association says that the association is hopeful that it can work with Feuer and his colleagues to reach an agreement where all parties will be satisfied.
“The assemblyman is a straight shooter,” said Jim Cassie, an advocate for the state outdoor sign organization. “We plan to work with him and his staff to come up with some reasonable recommendations that define safety standards as they relate to today’s light sources.”
Some of Feuer’s Assembly colleagues feel that, due to the economic crisis that has seized the nation and the state, it is unwise to limit the ability of businesses to display their services via outdoor advertising.
“The last thing that we need to be doing in this economy is to be putting up roadblocks to potential investment,” said State Senator George Runner of Lancaster, whose legislation was responsible for the AMBER Alert freeway electronic messaging system. Runner, along with Clear Channel Outdoors, backed a proposal last year to allow businesses to use the state’s network of electronic freeway signs that are traditionally used to post travel times and traffic information for commercial advertising.
Ray Sotero, chief of staff for State Senator Jenny Oropeza, said that while he was aware of the overwhelming support for a ban on billboards on the Westside, Oropeza’s office has not received a lot of phone calls on the subject.
“To date, we have not heard a lot of complaints from our constituents about [their opinions on billboards],” said Sotero.
Feuer joined Rosendahl at a press conference in downtown Los Angeles outside City Hall on January 13th to discuss his position on the statewide ban of digital billboards.
“Throughout the State of California, we are teaming up to take a smart approach to this increasing phenomenon,” Feuer said.
Hathaway would like to see a moratorium on the state level as well.
“I would urge our state legislators get behind this bill and our City Council to support it too,” he said.
Cassie reiterated that his organization would work with Feuer and the Assembly on the volatile topic of digital billboards, but he says that Sacramento has not taken the lead when it comes to developing safety measures regarding outdoor signs and he disputes the notion that they pose a danger to motorists.
“We have yet to see a safety incident with billboards, and they are going up all over the nation,” he asserted. “We have asked the state to come up with a set of safety standards for digital signs, but they have been slow to act on them.”
Despite the local ordinance prohibiting billboards, some companies have continued to defy the law. A week after the moratorium was approved, Delgadillo’s office filed charges against three property owners and the owner of a construction company that were allegedly caught installing outdoor advertising in violation of the new municipal law. They were each charged with counts of construction without permits, placing or altering a sign without a permit and erecting a sign without securing all required permits and licenses.
The owner of the construction company, Timothy McDaniel of McDaniel Inc., was also charged with failing to obey an order of the Department of Building and Safety to discontinue construction.
“I hope that these companies are prosecuted by the city attorney,” said Hathaway. “They seem to have no regard for the law, and the property owners need to know that they cannot allow illegal activity on their property.”