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To many residents of West Hollywood, taxing billboards and supergraphics in the city sounds like a good idea. After all, West Hollywood corridors like the Sunset Strip offer prime outdoor advertising real estate. But last week, the West Hollywood City Council voted not to allow an initiative that would impose a seven percent tax on billboards and supergraphics on the March ballot. Like so many other issues with outdoor advertising in Los Angeles County, the measure is already in court.
In addition to the tax on billboards, the “Tax Billboards Act” would also open the door for supergraphics on Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Boulevard, where they are currently banned.
“I believe the ballot measure is misleading and disingenuous and will not do what it claims to do,” West Hollywood City Councilmember Jeffry Prang said. “It is a Trojan Horse for the proliferation of more billboards and tall walls (another term for supergraphics) throughout the city.”
In large part, Prang’s objections derive from the ballot measure’s proponent. The measure’s chief architect, Mike McNeilly, is the president of SkyTag, a major supergraphics company with advertisements on the Sunset Strip — the only area of West Hollywood where supergraphics are currently permitted.
McNeilly claims that the initiative would simply allow the city to benefit from the hefty sums outdoor advertising companies like his are currently making.
“There is enough food on the table for everybody,” McNeilly said. “Tens of million of dollars are being made, and the people receive nothing. It’s not fair.”
The law would likely open up only one current structure, a building on Beverly Boulevard, to supergraphic advertisements.
However, Prang worried that if the initiative passed, it would encourage developers to build larger buildings designed to accommodate supergraphics. In addition, he conjectured that if the measure passed, the tax on billboards would lead to lawsuits — possibly from SkyTag, even — and would eventually be thrown out in court, leaving only the change to the zoning laws that allowed for more supergraphics.
McNeilly is no stranger to trying to spend money in order to gain access to lucrative advertising locations. In March, SkyTag offered to pay the City of Los Angeles the $12.5 million needed to purchase a plot of land near the Hollywood Sign if the city agreed to settle a lawsuit over approximately 20 existing signs around Los Angeles that the city wanted removed. City officials declined the offer, and SkyTag lost the case in court several months later.
The West Hollywood ballot initiative now becomes the latest court case over outdoor advertising in Los Angeles County, with proponents of the “Tax Billboards Act” hoping a judge will force the City of West Hollywood to put the measure, which received more than 2,700 certified signatures, on the ballot.
Mike Jenkins, the West Hollywood city attorney, outlined several reasons why he thought the council had the right to remove the measure from voter consideration.
According to Jenkins, the zoning change contradicts the West Hollywood General Plan — the equivalent of the city’s Constitution, so it would be invalid even if it is approved by voters.
In addition, the tax on billboards might violate the first amendment protection of free speech. Prang said the city council had considered such a tax in the past, but decided against it for just that reason.
The debate over the ballot measure has been bitter, with each side accusing the other of deceit and ulterior motives. A number of groups, including strange bedfellows like Concerned Neighbors Against Illegal Billboards and major billboard companies, have lined up against the “Tax Billboards Act”.
Still, McNeilly remained confident that the measure would make it onto the March ballot.
“It’ll be on the ballot,” McNeilly said. “Three city councilmembers should not be able to make the decision instead of the whole city.”
If he’s right, voters will have to decide if they want to tax billboards after all — and at what cost.
Mayor Pro Tempore John Duran, who abstained on the vote about the ballot measure, favored allowing the voters to decide the issue, even if those who signed the ballot initiative hadn’t understood what they were signing.
“Maybe they were duped,” Duran said. “Maybe they were misled. Maybe there were misrepresentations made. But that’s the whole point of the campaign: to give voters the information to make an informed decision.”
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