Los Angeles To Billboards: Sign Off

digital billboardLos Angeles city officials are recommending that no new billboards be permitted for six months to allow the city to reformulate laws regulating out-of-home advertising.

As in other cities and states across the country, LA's government is reacting to two public concerns. First, that the profusion of billboards results in visual clutter that makes the city less aesthetically appealing--and second, that digital billboards in particular may cause traffic accidents by distracting drivers with eye-catching animation or bright flashing lights.

The moratorium could be extended at three-month intervals, if the Los Angeles City Council needs more time to finish revising the rules.

At the heart of the municipal government's push-back against outdoor advertising is a plan to stop--or at least drastically slow--the conversion of existing static billboards to digital faces by outdoor advertising companies. This proposal was first made by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission in mid-October, prompted by anger in the tony, well-connected Silver Lake neighborhood over Clear Channel Outdoor's conversion of a billboard there.



Rules restricting further digital conversions would effectively reverse a legal settlement agreed to by the city government with Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor two years ago. Per the settlement, the outdoor advertisers agreed not to challenge the city's 2002 ban on new billboards in return for being allowed to upgrade over 800 existing static displays to digital.

However, this ban is being challenged on First Amendment and other grounds by 20 lawsuits brought by advertisers and property owners that want outdoor ad revenue.

Indeed, the LA City Council faces a rising tide of new outdoor advertising.

In June of this year, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the city from blocking 34 new "super-graphic" displays consisting of vinyl building wraps. Then in September, the lead developer of the $2.5 billion Live LA downtown revitalization project proposed a giant complex of digital signs mounted on the LA Convention Center. Local residents have already registered their opposition to the sign complex, which would have a surface area larger than a football field.

The City Planning Commission and City Council are also targeting an estimated 4,000 illegal billboards. Shady outdoor advertising firms--most of them locally based--have grown increasingly brazen, erecting multi-ton billboards in highly visible spots near freeways.

In the realm of legal signage, there has been an aggressive push by outdoor advertisers in recent years to roll out networks of digital billboards. They boost revenues by displaying multiple messages, allowing advertisers to charge more for high-traffic dayparts like morning and afternoon commutes.

Government opposition to billboards is not new.

In 2006, Michigan banned any new permits for billboards along roads and highways, after outdoor advertisers populated roadsides with billboards that were not subsequently maintained. Also in 2006, Clear Channel Outdoor encountered stiff resistance from the town of Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis, when it converted two regular billboards on I-394 and I-494 to digital displays--allegedly without permission from the town.

The legal dispute was settled in July. The agreement allows the digital displays in return for dismantling a number of regular billboards in the town itself.

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