Going to War over Digital Billboard Blight

City Hall feels the heat from outrage over giant flashing electronic signs

The hottest-button issue this week at City Hall is the conversion of large billboards in many part of Los Angeles into digital eyesores, the electronic kind that flash new images as often as every three seconds, 24 hours a day.

A month ago, the City Council rolled over and agreed to put up 74 billboards at the Convention Center, many of them digital, but enabling state legislation needed because they face freeways and might pose a traffic hazard stalled in the Senate.

Since then, Dennis Hathaway and the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight have stepped up their efforts to mobilize community opposition and L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote two columns last week on Clear Channel's new digital billboard in his Silver Lake neighborhood.

Proving the incredible shrinking press still has some clout, Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Tom LaBonge immediately took up Lopez' complaints and called for a report on the one at 1701 N. Silver Lake Blvd., referring to it as "billboard blight," and the potential for similar "modernizations" of existing billboards elsewhere. The issue is on the Planning and Land Use Committee agenda for Tuesday and likely will come to the full council next week.

On Thursday, the Planning Commission under Jane Usher -- one of the few city commissioners showing some independence -- is set to open a discussion on the broader issue of whether there should be a moratorium on all billboard conversions until the muddled settlement engineered by City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo is reviewed and an audit is conducted to identify all 11,000 billboards in the city, more than 4,000 of which are believed to be illegal.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's cryptic and equivocal comments to Lopez spurred billboard opponents. He deflected responsibility for signing off on the settlement on Delgadillo's snow job and indicated giant flashing electronic images on freeways wasn't much of a safety hazard, presumably because traffic moves so slowly and drivers are used to distractions.

The view in the city's neighborhoods is far different. At a candidates forum Saturday for Council District 5 that runs from the Westside to Sherman Oaks, all five called for tough measures against digital billboards that might include heavy fines for illegal billboards, a moratorium on conversions and requiring environmental impact reports on each conversion proposal.

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