Last Friday, Metro Fuel filed a motion in United States District Court for the Northern District of California to prevent the city of San Francisco from enforcing its laws against illegal billboards.
The outdoor advertising company, which is owned by New York based Fuel Outdoor Holdings, which specializes in mini billboards or “Metro Lights” panels, is hoping that a federal court judge will issue a preliminary injunction blocking San Francisco from prosecuting building owners who allow illegal billboards on their property.
San Francisco banned all new billboards in 2002. It also has strict zoning regulations that prohibit billboards in residential areas, near schools and parks. Recently, the city began issuing “notices of violations” against Fuel’s panel sign lessors. The city has argued that the ban and restrictive zoning is necessary to preserve and protect “traffic safety” and “aesthetics.”
Metro Fuel filed the motion against the city arguing that it was unfair that the city could make money off its street furniture program, lamppost banners, news racks and kiosks but forbid similar advertising on private property by a private firm.
According to the court filings, Metro Fuel operates 164 panels in San Francisco. The illuminated mini billboards are located in parking lots, along the sides of buildings, and on poles.
Anti-billboard activists say that Fuel Outdoor Holdings is systematically attacking and putting in jeopardy city sign laws around the country including in Los Angeles.
In 2001, six months before Los Angeles City Hall erected a blanket ban on all new billboards, the city entered into a contract with CBS Decaux, which gave the advertising company a lucrative contract to sell and display advertising on bus shelters and kiosks. In return, the city would receive $150 million over the 20-year-term of the agreement.
Instead, the contract opened up a Pandora's box of litigation. It didn't take long before Metro Lights “movie poster” style signs that looked similar in size and shape to the cities “street furniture” started popping up.
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In 2003, the city began citing the company for illegally erecting billboards. Metro Lights – which was later purchased by Fuel Outdoor Holdings in 2006 - filed a federal lawsuit against the city arguing that its “street furniture” program was “unconstitutional.” In 2006, a district judge agreed.
In June of 2008, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office argued in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the district court made an error in its earlier findings, and the city had every right to ban commercial signs and profit on its own "transit aesthetic" program. Laurence Tribe, the attorney for Fuel Outdoor, argued that the city’s 2002 ban on billboards restricted free speech and gave City Hall an unfair advantage in outdoor advertising. The decision is still pending with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
It is unclear when the San Francisco case will be heard before a district judge.