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Will L.A. Finally Zero in on Forest of Illegal Billboards?

Almost seven long years after the Los Angeles City Council vowed to find the exact locations and determine the physical condition of the city's virtually unregulated forest of legal and illegal 10,000 billboards, the city's Building and Safety Department says they will begin the long-awaited program on February 1.

The Building & Safety Department is proposing to charge $186 per billboard structure for a three-year inspection period.  The fee will be levied on the smaller billboard companies that were not party to City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo's sweetheart settlement deals beginning in 2005 with Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, Regency Outdoor, and Vista Media. Those companies already agreed to the $186 fee.  According to the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, the four companies own 6,581 signs, which "leaves an estimated 3,500 signs owned by other companies that would be covered by the latest proposal."

The fees would pay for three field inspectors to conduct the actual survey and enter the information into a billboard database, plus a supervising inspector and a clerk. The program, which is estimated to cost $1,871,594, is expected to take 2.7 years to complete.

The news of an inspection program came as a shock to anti-billboard activists who have been questioning the delay along with City Council Member Jack Weiss since City Council members voted for the program in 2002. At the time, the building department estimated that there were at least 4,000 illegal billboards in Los Angeles. The billboard boondoggle was chronicled in the LA Weekly cover story, Billboards Gone Wild.

"Everybody should be pleased if the program actually starts on Feb. 1, but it's hard to see why it took almost two years to come up with a fee that's identical to the one included in the lawsuit settlement with Clear Channel, CBS, and Regency, " said Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight.

Even at a city council meeting on October 22 there seemed to be no immediate plan to start the program. In fact, the meeting turned sour quick when Building & Safety officials told the bewildered city council that the city's long-awaited billboard inspection program was still many months away from starting. A visibly miffed Council Member Eric Garcetti, who got his first dose of the ineptitude that has befallen the inspection program, said, that "Every time we don't do some basic work, it just reaffirms people's suspicions about whether City Hall is serious about this."
 
Garcetti quipped that outraged community members have built a billboard database quicker than building department experts in far less time. Garcetti asked for a report on its progress by late January.
 
Hector Buitrago, chief of the code inspection section at Building & Safety, seemed unmoved by Garcetti's annoyance, offering that the department has "made progress."
 
Buitrago and his department provided the same lip service last February when Councilmember Weiss asked the department for a reason behind the delay. Again, Buitrago said they needed to figure out a new fee to charge the smaller billboard companies that weren't involved in the settlement.

A few weeks later, sick and tired of billboard blight and the lack of an inspection program, volunteers in Council member Bill Rosendahl's district completed their own survey on November 8 of the billboards in Council District 11.  Curbed LA reported that a a total of 563 billboards were found in Rosendahl's district. Eighty-four billboards were found along a 4.2 mile stretch of Lincoln Boulevard.

However, in a surprising twist, the Building & Safety Department coughed up a 12-page memo outlining its plan to start the program as of February 1. Inquiring minds still want to know why it took building workers and the City Attorney's office four years to come up with the exact same fee that was agreed upon by the billboard giants? We also want to know why building and safety workers still haven't asked Clear Channel Outdoor, CBS Outdoor and Regency Outdoor to pony up their $186 annual fee on each billboard?