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A recent court decision could pave the way for electronic signs and larger billboards to be resurrected in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin, in a decision filed on Oct. 14, ruled that the city’s ban on billboards “runs afoul of the California Constitution’s protection of free speech.”
Specifically, the court ruling dealt with the city’s moratorium on billboards in regards to on-site versus off-site advertising. For example, McDonald’s couldn’t put a billboard advertisement over a Motel 6 building — only a billboard advertising that Motel 6 business could be placed there.
“The judge’s decision is squarely at odds with a 2011 9th Circuit decision and we will appeal,” said Rob Wilcox, director of community outreach for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
Others are bracing for the worst.
“I think the ruling is a disaster,” said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “I just really hope it is overturned on appeal. If it isn’t, then it could very likely go all the way to the California Supreme Court, which would be the law of the state.”
In 2002, the city of Los Angeles enacted a ban on any new off-site billboard signs or for any modifications to existing signs — that includes all electronic signs.
Lamar Central Outdoor was the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The national billboard company bought local billboard company Vista Media in 2008. Lamar vice president and Los Angeles general manager Ray Baker said Vista Media was part of settlements with the city to allow for some billboards after a 2002 ban.
However, in December 2008, the city put a moratorium on everything.
“Shortly after we made the purchase, they shut it down,” Baker said.
Lamar currently has about 4,000 billboards in Los Angeles, which Baker said they have offered to take down to build a few digital and a few larger regular billboards, all in commercial and industrial areas.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2011 seemed to uphold the moratorium, Hathaway said, but this new ruling does not coincide.
The new court decision was made in regards to 45 digital billboard proposals by Lamar spanning across Los Angeles. The ruling does not allow for the immediate application of those billboards, but simply stipulates that the city of Los Angeles cannot deny those billboards because they are advertising off-site companies and products.
Baker said the key to winning the decision was going through the California law system.
“The California Court is much more broad and much more liberal when it comes to the First Amendment,” he said. “We made the decision to litigate through the state court on the basis that the city cannot allow all these exemptions and exceptions under this law.”
Baker said the city itself has thousands of signs on its own properties. He also pointed to the ESPN and L.A. Live properties as examples of digital signs that are working, and proof that the signs are safe and aesthetically viable. He added that Wilshire Grand was approved for a digital sign next to the 110 Freeway.
Baker said he remains willing to remove thousands of billboards in the region.
“We told the council before that we were willing to work out some kind of legislative fix on this,” he added. “That has not changed.”
All of the normal rules still apply to the billboard laws, including the need for certain sizes and proper zoning and spacing.
However, Baker said, there is ‘no difference between an off-site or on-site sign” now.
Hathaway, who has spent years fighting against billboards, said he was very worried about the ruling, and noted a prior Oregon ruling cited in the Los Angeles decision “really opened the door” in that state.
“I want the city to really start thinking hard about how they can change their code in some way to preclude more billboards coming up,” he said, noting it was best to be prepared in case an appeal did not work.
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