By Gary Walker
Opponents to the proliferation of billboards in recent years throughout Los Angeles scored a victory Dec. 10 when an appellate court ruled that a 10-year deal allowing outdoor sign companies to convert their signs to digital technology is invalid.
The decision by the Second Court of Appeal upholds an earlier trial court verdict that voided a 2002 settlement agreement between the city of Los Angeles and several billboard companies. The agreement was reached after the city instituted a ban on outdoor signage and several billboard operators sued the city.
“We affirm the trial court’s order finding the settlement agreement void, but conclude the court must also order revocation of all digital conversion permits granted under the illegal settlement agreement,” the court wrote.
Santa Monica-based Summitt Media was the plaintiff in the case and CBS Outdoor Inc. was a cross-complainant.
Had the court not sided with Los Angeles, more than 100 new digital signs could have been erected, including many in Venice.
Under the 2002 arrangement, city officials agreed to permit as many as 840 signs to be erected, as trial judge James Chalfant wrote, “without regard to whether or not those 840 signs were lawfully erected, whether or not those 840 signs had permits, whether or not those 840 signs had ever complied with a permit or whether or not those 840 signs violate prospective city building or zoning ordinances.”
On Oct. 16, the Los Angeles City Council voted to pursue a strategy for regulating the outdoor signs and seek a share of the revenue from their profits, a move that was criticized by anti-blight advocates who considered the vote to be an appeasement to the billboard companies.
“I think they’re jumping the gun. I think they should wait for a ruling on the court case,” Venice resident David Ewing said after the vote.
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who is being challenged by Assemblyman Michael Feuer in the 2013 municipal election, made cracking down illegal billboards a staple of his 2009 campaign.
“The Summit Media appellate court decision confirms the illegality of the CBS and Clear Channel digital signs and requires that their permits be revoked,” said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman in Trutanich’s office. “Neither this ruling nor the 2009 trial court ruling on which it was based have limited the city’s ability to enact citywide legislation authorizing digital signs, so long as that legislation treats all-comers with an even hand.”
Trutanich was unavailable for comment for this story, according to his office.
The city is in the midst of considering a new sign ordinance that will regulate all signage and ban digital billboards.
Ewing, who took part in a citizen-driven cataloguing of illegal billboards on the Westside four years ago, thinks the court ruling will give city elected leaders the ability to do what many Westside constituents have been asking for since the proliferation of billboards began along some of the Westside’s most heavily traveled thoroughfares, such as Lincoln, Venice and Sepulveda boulevards.
“This should remove any excuses for not regulating billboards and I hope the City Council will move ahead with the new ordinance and not engage in backroom deals that will undercut the sign ordinance,” Ewing said.
Representatives from Clear Channel contacted Trutanich’s office on multiple occasions prior to the most recent court decision in an effort to compel the city to consider new regulations prior to the appellate judges hearing the case.
“The Court of Appeal has sent a notice inviting us, the city and the other parties in the case to participate in its appellate mediation process,” wrote Sara Lee Keller, Clear Channel’s general counsel. “We respectfully suggest that the City Council should be consulted as to the city’s willingness to engage in settlement discussions concerning this case.
“We remain committed to supporting a legislative solution to the issues related to the stipulated judgment, which would also provide a path forward to clarify the rules for future outdoor advertising in Los Angeles,” Keller continued.
“Clear Channel Outdoor is particularly focused on affirming the legal status of existing digital displays permitted by the Department of Building and Safety.”
Councilman Bill Rosendahl has seen the number of billboards explode in recent years and has been perhaps the council’s most vocal advocate of reigning in the number of outdoor signs in the city. In Rosendahl’s 11th Council District, which includes Mar Vista, Del Rey, Playa del Rey, Venice and Westchester, outdoor sign companies have moved quickly since 2002 to erect their signs.
“I’m delighted that the court ruled in our favor,” the councilman said. “These digital billboards are polluting our visual air space.”
Rosendahl missed the Oct. 16 vote but said in a later interview that he would have cast his vote against seeking a settlement with the outdoor advertising firms.
In a letter to his colleagues, the councilman urged them to consult with Trutanich prior to reaching a decision.
“Any decision to enter into discussions with sign companies that have settlement agreements with the city should be carefully considered in consultation with our city attorney,” he wrote. “The settlement agreements allowed for the unchecked proliferation of digital billboard blight throughout West Los Angeles, bringing more than 100 new digital billboards to the region.
“I have long been a proponent of the city receiving a fair portion of the revenue generated through outdoor advertising. But I believe that our legislative process is the best method to address this issue.”
Clear Channel, CBS Outdoors and other affected billboard companies could seek to return their digital displays to static signs again.
In an ironic twist, Clear Channel announced Dec. 18 that it will be using one of its digital billboards to assist the FBI in its hunt for the “Ray-Bandit,” a bank robber wanted in connection with 14 bank heists in California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Nebraska and Virginia.
Ewing remains somewhat skeptical that city leaders will refrain from allowing more billboards – and increased revenue – from sprouting up in District 11.
“I’m wondering now how the City Council will undo what the court has done,” he said.
A spokeswoman for CBS Outdoors declined to comment on the ruling or if the company would seek to appeal it. §