It looks like Councilmember Jack Weiss’ plan to impose hefty fines on companies that post multi-story “supergraphics” signs plastered illegally around Los Angeles is kaput – for now. A federal court judge made sure of that.

Last April, Weiss held a press conference across the street from a Gap Inc. “supergraphics” with a blond model stretched across a 10-storey office building on West Pico Boulevard. Weiss called for the city to enforce a law already on the books that allowed the city to levy $2,500 fines, daily.

However, last week, a federal court judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking Los Angeles from prosecuting the Philadelphia-based company that posted the Gap sign. The court ruling essentially stops the city from any enforcement actions at the companies Pico Boulevard spot or at its 33 other locations until the company has a chance to challenge the city's outdoor advertising laws.

In federal court, the “supergraphics” company argued that the 2002 billboard ban violated its free speech, and that city leaders were discriminating against them by forbidding “supergraphics” and billboards within 2,000 feet of freeways while making exceptions with Los Angeles City Council approved “Supplemental Use Districts” or specialty billboard districts.

On June 9, US District Judge Audrey Collins said that Worldwide Rush showed that it had a likelihood of winning the lawsuit it filed in 2007 after the city began citing seven of its 34 locations. The city also filed charges against a building owner for a sign located at 6081 Center Drive, and threatened to issue an arrest warrant based on the building owners refusal to remove the sign.

Collins also criticized the city’s decision to allow two 76-foot-tall monster-size double-faced billboards next to the 10 Freeway then forbid other billboard companies from doing the same for traffic safety reasons.

The judge based part of her court decision on Council Member Jan Perry’s plan to create a wetland park in South Los Angeles. The plan came about after the Metropolitan Transit Authority removed 14 billboards on Santa Monica Boulevard in 2001. Clear Channel, the owner of the billboards, sued. In exchange for Clear Channel dropping the lawsuit, the MTA agreed to create a billboard district on a bus yard it owns near the 10 Freeway. In the deal, the city got a nine-acre wetland park.

At the time, the Los Angeles Times, KPCC radio and others reported that Clear Channel would contribute a portion of its revenues toward a wetlands park in Perry’s council district. However, Eva Kandarpa, spokeswoman for Perry, confirmed to the LA Weekly that Clear Channel was not contributing a dime to Perry’s park.

“The court can see little advancement of traffic safety by removing those 14 and erecting four billboards that now face a freeway,” said Collins. “The signs facing the freeway directly undermine the city’s stated concerns of traffic safety and aesthetics.”

“While the city has valid interests in preserving traffic safety and aesthetics, it has permitted multiple commercial signs within 2,000 feet of the freeway that directly undermine those interests,” she added.

A “supergraphics” drapes the side of a building near Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood

The implications are huge, say billboard critics who fear that the judge’s ruling will open up the floodgates to a never-ending stream of lawsuits and billboards, in a city already blanketed by roughly 4,000 illegal billboards and thousands of legal ones.

“It is a bad situation,” said Gerry Silver, vice president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight. “The city has an inconsistent policy and the only policy that will be successful is a flat out ban…If the city is going to put billboards along the 10 freeway there should be at least a 50/50 split. If they are going to sell out the public interests to the billboard companies it better be at a higher price than just a give away or a crumb.”

Paul E. Fisher, an attorney for Worldwide Rush, said the city has the right to regulate or prohibit billboards but they shouldn’t be allowed to play favorites.

“The only people who get exempted are the people the city council likes,” he said. “There is a downside to ineffective regulation. You lose the control to regulate at all. You are much better off having reasonable restrictions than enacting these draconian measures that might be politically popular but violate the United States Constitution.”

Weiss, in an email response yesterday from his office said: “I have been working for five years to get an inventory of signs and remove illegal signs, and recently I began to explore civil penalties against illegal supergraphics. This series of lawsuits has been frustrating, but I will continue my efforts consistent with the court's ruling.”

A trial date is scheduled for early next year.

LA Weekly