Council Tackles “Changing Nature of Billboards”

A proposed statewide moratorium on digital billboards was endorsed Wednesday by the Los Angeles City Council over the objections of sign company representatives who argued the bill infringes upon the control of local governments.

Four council members -- Richard Alarcon, Tony Cardenas, Bernard Parks and Ed Reyes -- declined to support Assembly Bill 109. Alarcon referred to the bill as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and said he was concerned state lawmakers would add a last-minute amendment that could funnel digital billboard fees to the state rather than city government.

AB 109, proposed by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, would prohibit digital billboards from being built, converted from traditional billboards, enhanced or modified until Jan. 1, 2012. Fines for violating the ban would be $3,500 per day.

The law, if approved and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would take effect Jan. 1, 2010.

"The changing nature of the billboards is something that has been troubling," said Councilman Eric Garcetti. "We still have a real uprising against these by not just a vocal minority of people but the average person."

Councilman Bill Rosendahl recently canvassed his Westside district and counted 563 billboards, 34 of which were illegally posted and 20 of which had recently been converted to digital.

"It's obviously a good thing to have a moratorium so that we can understand the safety aspects of digital billboards," Rosendahl said.

The bill by the former city councilman was introduced shortly after after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Los Angeles ordinance that limited the placement of billboards. That ordinance bans signs on private property, even though similar signs appear on thousands of city-owned benches and bus stops.

Feuer has said digital billboards pose a safety risk to drivers and believes his bill would give state and city officials time to review studies being done by the Federal Highway Administration and American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"Let's pause, take a timeout, evaluate the science, be focused on the data before we make decisions," Feuer told the council this morning.

The bill is opposed by CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, two companies that post billboards in the city.

"There's no need for this legislation," said Layne Lawson, director of public affairs for Clear Channel Outdoor.

"All this legislation does is take away local control while the city is currently trying to put together a brand new sign code where you might have options, where you might want to make time, place and manner (recommendations) for where you want some of these digital billboards."

Alarcon, who was one of the four dissenting votes, said he could envision a scenario where state lawmakers could insert language to take fees associated with digital billboards posted along freeways.

"There's nothing to stop them from saying that Caltrans will get this money. It would take our power away," Alarcon said.

"On the face of it, I don't like the notion that the state is controlling something that we should, frankly, step up and have control of. Secondly, I'm concerned about the potential revenue-generation and the revenue-generation opportunities that would be taken by the state."

In December, the Los Angeles City Council approved a three-month moratorium on new billboards and gave the green light to a new fee structure that had been challenged in court. Department of Building and Safety officials are expected to create a comprehensive database of billboards in the next month.

As an amendment to today's vote, Reyes, chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, introduced a motion directing Building and Safety officials to work with Public Works to take down illegal billboards and impose fines on sign companies and property owners.

A settlement between the city of Los Angeles and sign company World Wide Rush allowed 877 billboards to be converted to digital displays. AB 109 would prevent those modifications from taking place.

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