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Vandals cut down nearly two dozen trees that blocked view of billboards

February 25, 2009 |  8:09 am

One of the trees crudely chopped down off the 405 Freeway near the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Several more trees were mysteriously cut down near National Blvd. Authorites are unsure of who is responsible for these amateur pruning jobs. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times The mysterious felling of nearly two dozen trees near Los Angeles billboards has provoked finger-pointing between state officials and an advertising company while adding fuel to the debate about outdoor advertising in the city.

Vandals apparently equipped with chain saws hacked back the trees, which were part of a major landscaping initiative along the 405 and 10 freeways, said Daniel Freeman, the California Department of Transportation’s deputy district director for maintenance in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Freeman said the crude pruning job appeared to be aimed at making two large advertisements erected by the World Wide Rush advertising company more visible to drivers. “I can’t imagine why anyone else would want to cut down these trees,” Freeman said.

Paul Fisher, a Newport Beach lawyer representing World Wide Rush, acknowledged that the company had put up the ads but said it had nothing to do with the removal of any trees. He accused officials of looking for pretexts to get around federal rulings that have limited the city’s ability to contain the proliferation of digital signs and large vinyl or plastic ads stretched across the sides of buildings, known as “supergraphics.”

Critics contend the signs distracts drivers, pose a fire hazard and could hinder access by rescue crews. Advertising companies dispute the charges and accuse officials of limiting their right to free speech. In December, the Los Angeles City Council imposed a three-month moratorium on all new signs to buy time to rewrite its outdoor advertising regulations in a way that would withstand a court challenge.

Freeman said the trees were cut back in December and January, just before World Wide Rush put up two supergraphics advertising Tropicana juice on the walls of a parking structure at Sherman Oaks Galleria and another on the side of a six-story building on National Boulevard near the 10 Freeway.

They included a row of 15-foot Brisbane box evergreens near the Galleria, which were cut down to about three or four feet, Freeman said. Caltrans had planted the trees at a cost of between $2,500 and $3,000 each to screen off the 405 freeway, he said.

“I am particularly annoyed that these were the ones that got hit,” Freeman said, explaining that “these were essentially brand new.”

Five or six more trees were felled near the building on National Boulevard, he said, along with five belonging to the shopping mall. Katherine Defever, a Galleria representative, said mall officials were baffled when they noticed the destruction and had initially assumed that Caltrans officials were cutting back landscaping themselves.

Freeman said Caltrans was notified about the trees by the office of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, which filed criminal charges in January against World Wide Rush and National Investment Co., owners of the building at 10801 National Blvd., for allegedly putting up an unauthorized sign and violating safety regulations.

The case against World Wide Rush was amended last week to include charges related to a new sign that went up on National in place of the Tropicana ad, said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for Delgadillo’s office.
World Wide Rush contends the charges are in contempt of a federal ruling that found that a 2002 city ban on new billboards violated the U.S. Constitution. Although that decision is being appealed, the company won an injunction to prevent the city from enforcing its ban on World Wide Rush supergraphics at 34 buildings, including the one on National.

Freeman alleged that the sign on National also violates the California Outdoor Advertising Act, which gives Caltrans control over advertising displayed within 660 feet of the edge of a freeway. The department is conducting its own investigation into the matter, he said.

While Freeman hopes to replace the damaged landscaping, he said the department would not be able to afford to put in mature trees similar to the ones that were lost.

-- Alexandra Zavis

Photo: One of the trees crudely chopped down off the 405 Freeway near the Sherman Oaks Galleria. Several more trees were mysteriously cut down near National Blvd. Authorites are unsure of who is responsible for these amateur pruning jobs. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

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