By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Each sign, including the one in Silver Lake that has put Garcetti in the cross hairs, will require a fight to remove. Success in court will be close to impossible, says Fry, because the billboard giants have vast legal resources to argue that their First Amendment Rights are being attacked. “They are like a virus,” he says. “Once they are in your system, they can’t be removed.”
LaBonge’s new concern, with motorists gawking instead of watching the road, is: “Who is liable? If I am driving down the street and I see a board and I keep looking at it and bang and I get into a fender-bender, who is liable? Are we liable because we allowed these up?” It’s a good question, and one never discussed by the City Council.
Early this year, when the first digital billboards showed up, Encino resident and longtime activist Gerry Silver decided to challenge the Villaraigosa administration’s decision to put up a bright, digital billboard on Ventura Boulevard, near his home. The terse notification of the city’s action read: “Modernization of an existing 14-foot x 48-foot billboard with digital technology.”
Silver contacted the city’s planning department and asked for a copy of whatever paperwork had been generated that would allow a flashing billboard, directly facing a rush-hour crowd of 30,000 commuters.
Last February, Silver received the paperwork — and was surprised to see that Clear Channel Outdoor got the go-ahead from Villaraigosa’s planning chief, Gail Goldberg, the city’s top planner, who promotes herself as someone interested in “community” and a “sense of place.” A busy woman, the architect of the mayor’s relentless push for dense apartment complexes citywide, Goldberg had made the final decision on a single billboard approval in the Valley.
Silver, who is plugged into the arcane rules of City Hall, formally asked the obscure South Valley Area Planning Commission to rule against Goldberg’s decision. He argued that Goldberg wrongly gave Clear Channel Outdoor a “categorical exemption” from environmental review on the inappropriate grounds that switching a billboard to digital is a “minor” alteration.
To Silver, the proposed sign, with its gigantic, changing images, raised questions of driver distraction, would use far more energy than a conventional billboard and created potential light pollution for residents — all environmental issues.
The day before an August 27 meeting of the South Valley Area Planning Commission to decide Silver’s case, Clear Channel Outdoor got cold feet. For the first time in anyone’s recollection, a huge billboard company chose to walk away from a fight with L.A. residents.
The “Encino incident” is now talked of as a watershed moment in the gathering war by Angelenos against digital billboards. In fact, Silver and others fighting billboards are charter members of the Valley Secession movement, long sick of decisions from downtown that change their lives. Many are accustomed to drilling deep into the downtown bureaucracy in order to be heard.
The group Silver belongs to, the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, was the first in L.A. to challenge the absence of environmental review in digital-billboard approvals. But such challenges soon spread to other areas of the city. The same week Clear Channel abruptly abandoned its Ventura Boulevard plan, Westwood residents protested an enormous new digital sign switched on along Westwood Boulevard with no notice given to the Westwood Homeowners Association or Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Association.
On August 25, the two groups paid a $106 appeal fee to the Department of Building and Safety, arguing that L.A. law specifically bans flashing lights in their leafy, “pedestrian-oriented district” near Westwood.
Westwood residents soon discovered that the Villaraigosa administration was so ill-prepared to handle angry citizen challenges against the unpopular LED displays that City Hall doesn’t have a complaint form. “I think the issue had been viewed as a bunch of Westside NIMBYs [who are] only concerned about their neighborhoods,” says Barbara Broide, president of Westwood South of Santa Monica Boulevard Homeowners Association. “We went for a way to appeal the billboard — and there wasn’t an obvious way."
In early October, the homeowner groups got a call from the Department of Building and Safety informing the members, many of them lawyers and Realtors, that the city was rejecting their appeal. A barely understandable, handwritten note from a building and safety worker stated dismissively: “Settlement agreement allows the modernization, and signoff is not required, as this is not a new sign.”
If Westwooders wanted to fight it, they’d have to appeal to Villaraigosa’s political appointees on the Building and Safety Commission downtown — and pay an additional $233.20 fee.
The next week, the two Westwood groups appealed two more huge digital signs, again in areas that specifically ban such clutter; one at 2131 Westwood Blvd., in the protected Pico-Westwood Neighborhood Oriented District, and another on Santa Monica Boulevard, east of Beverly Glen, on a designated scenic roadway.