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L.A. City Council bars new billboard-modernization permits

December 16, 2009 |  6:08 pm

With Angelenos complaining about digital billboards that flash into their homes and gardens, the Los Angeles City Council asked city inspectors today to set up a process for reviewing the permits for 101 electrified signs that were modernized under a 2006 legal settlement.

The settlement between the city and two advertising companies, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, was challenged in Los Angeles County Superior Court by another billboard company and invalidated by a judge last month. But CBS and Clear Channel have appealed, leading the council to proceed cautiously.

Council President Eric Garcetti said there are big financial considerations for members while the case is on appeal. "If we revoke these permits and then the decision is overturned, we could owe those companies millions of dollars. So we want to be very careful with how we tread moving forward."

Today, the council approved a motion by Garcetti and Councilman Ed Reyes that bars the city Building and Safety Department from issuing any new permits for modernizations of traditional billboards.

The council had already banned digital conversions, but Garcetti said today's action offered "double protection" to prevent any pending permits from being finalized.

The measure also asked city staff to review options for dealing with the brightly lighted signs, including an evaluation of whether sign permits are valid and whether any digital billboards should be removed.

"We need to assess now what we think the law says and what any process would be for getting some or any portion of them down," Garcetti said.

He added that he would like to see "at the very least, the billboards that shouldn't be in residential areas moved. I'd also like to see a reduction of these if we can't do an outright elimination of all of them."

Representatives from CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel had urged council members to delay a decision on the Garcetti and Reyes motion until the new year.
Leslie Moonves, president and chief executive of CBS Corp., sent a personal letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, urging him to oppose Garcetti’s motion, which he described as "bad for the business community" and "unfairly punitive to CBS’s outdoor advertising business."
“If moved by haste,” Moonves wrote, “this motion will hurt both our community and the strong public/private relationship which you have fostered.”
After the council’s unanimous vote supporting his motion, Garcetti noted that CBS owns a small number of the 101 digital signs that were converted under the 2006 settlement.
“If a great company like CBS’ fortunes ride on 13 digital billboards in Los Angeles ... I would have great worries about that company, and I don’t,” he said.

Garcetti said the coming weeks presented “a very fertile time” to sit down with billboard companies and discuss options for reducing the impact of the signs in residential areas.

-- Maeve Reston at L.A. City Hall