On Tuesday, December 12, the Los Angeles City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee considered the latest draft of a new city ordinance to regulate billboards and digital signs in the city, as well as a lengthy report by a consulting firm analyzing policy options for and and potential revenues from two possible location schemes for new digital billboards. One option would allow new digital signs on both private and publicly owned land…and the other would allow them only on parcels owned by the city or Metro.
Under the city’s current sign ordinance, digital signs are allowed only in specially designated sign districts (electronic signs outside those areas were required to be shut down and/or removed in 2013), but in the new ordinance the city is considering rewarding billboard companies for removing old non-digital billboards, which many council members and residents feel have blighted our local cityscapes, with the ability to erect some new digital signs in certain areas. What the replacement ratios should be and where the new digital signs could be located are currently being debated. Another issue of contention is what kinds of enforcement options, and penalties for violations, would be necessary or most effective.
According to Ken Fong, from the City Attorney’s Office, who also spoke at the session, sign regulation in general is “one of the more complex parts of land use,” not just here but everywhere in the U.S., because in addition to the usual balancing of public, private and commercial interests, you also have to take First Amendment freedom of speech protections into consideration. And giving cities or individuals the ability to dictate where signs can and cannot be placed, Fong said, can run afoul of free speech guarantees if the rules aren’t applied uniformly to all sign owners.
In public comments at the meeting, several Neighborhood Council representatives spoke up against the proposed draft of the ordinance, saying it would result in new digital signs that residents don’t want and which could also be dangerously distracting to drivers. Representatives of several sign companies and business groups spoke in favor of the new ordinance, saying it would provide a fair new system for sign regulation, and an opportunity to modernize the sign companies’ inventories and messaging capabilities. And a few representatives of social service agencies also spoke in favor of the new ordinance, saying it could help provide much needed new revenues to help with the city’s housing crisis…as well as a way to bring messages about social service organizations to people who need them most and do not have access to other common communications media.
After the discussions, the Committee postponed further discussion and action until January, giving neighborhood councils and other community groups more time to digest, discuss and make recommendations on the newly-released reports, and city officials time to provide more information requested by the Committee members.