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Appeals court sides with L.A. in fight against billboards, supergraphics

May 26, 2010 | 11:42 am
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed a major victory to the city of Los Angeles on Wednesday in its fight against the proliferation of unpermitted billboards, reversing a federal judge’s ruling that struck down a ban on new supergraphics, billboards and freeway-facing signs.

The panel of three judges found that the City Council did not violate the 1st Amendment right to free speech when it allowed exceptions to its citywide ban. The court also reversed injunctions that blocked the city from seeking the removal of unpermitted signs at nearly 40 locations.
Deputy City Atty. Michael Bostrom described the ruling as an “unequivocal” triumph for the city. “We definitely intend to continue with aggressive enforcement of our billboard laws, and this provides more clarity as to what tools we have in the toolbox to enforce against unpermitted, illegal signs,” he said.

World Wide Rush, an outdoor advertising company with multistory supergraphics around the city, had argued that the council undercut its own citywide billboard ban by allowing the installation of new digital billboards along the 10 Freeway and the approval of electronic signs that faced the 110 Freeway at Staples Center. A second company, SkyTag, had argued against the ban on similar grounds, saying that the city’s sign ordinance allowed cronyism and political favoritism to pollute the city’s permit process.

Rex Heinke, an attorney for World Wide Rush, said he is discussing a possible appeal with his client but had no comment on the ruling itself. A lawyer for SkyTag did not immediately comment.
Two years ago, both companies had persuaded U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins to block the city from attempting to remove their signs from nearly 40 locations, including Hollywood, Westwood and other neighborhoods. In most of those locations, the city asserted that the signs lacked the proper permits and violated the ban on supergraphics.

World Wide Rush and SkyTag said that the city had given itself “unfettered” discretion to pick and choose where new outdoor advertising could be installed, by allowing them in special sign districts, special planning districts and through individual development agreements.

While Wednesday's appellate ruling upheld the city’s efforts to regulate outdoor advertising, it could also reopen the floodgates to a series of new billboard districts. While the case was being battled in court, the council held off on a proposal that allowed for the creation of as many as 21 billboard districts across the city.

Councilman Ed Reyes, who heads the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, said that proposal now deserves another look. The plan, he said, was based on the notion that some neighborhoods may not have a problem with billboards and may, in fact, welcome them.

“There are places that want to feel urbanized. There are places that want activity and motion. The people there are ready” for new billboards, he said. “But in other places, that’s the furthest thing from their minds, and I respect that.”

Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, voiced fears that his group’s advocacy efforts may soon shift from illegal signs to a “proliferation of legal signs” in city-sanctioned billboard districts.

Still, he praised Wednesday’s ruling as a significant step.

“It’s a great ruling because it affirms the city’s right to prohibit these signs. You can actually have some regulations. If the city hadn’t won, their whole sign ordinance would be out the window,” he said. 

-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall