JMBM Development Rights: A Sign of the Times

Signs are on the minds of elected officials, government agencies and neighborhood groups in every community of Los Angeles as the City seeks to overhaul its Citywide and Hollywood sign codes this year in response to multiple lawsuits from sign companies and property owners, and outcry from residents.

On May 26, 2009, the Los Angeles City Council voted to delay adoption of the revised Citywide sign code until after July 1, 2009, so that City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich can review the language. Mr. Trutanich appointed Jane Usher as his Executive Director, who as former President of the City Planning Commission was a strong advocate for limiting off-site signage. The City Attorney’s office is also currently evaluating the revised Hollywood Signage Supplemental Use District ordinance. The City Council also moved to extend the current Interim Control Ordinance (ICO), which suspends the issuance of building permits for off-site signage, including supergraphic and digital signs, for an additional 90 days until September 22, 2009 to allow for maintenance of the status quo during the City’s evaluation of the two sign codes.

Off-Site Signage in the Hollywood Signage SUD
The City Council issued a ban on off-site signage in 2002, but allowed for exceptions in Specific Plan areas and Supplemental Use Districts (SUDs). In 2005, the City Council adopted the Hollywood Signage Supplemental Use District, which permitted off-site signage as either a 120- day Temporary Special Display or as a permanent sign through approval of either (i) a sign reduction plan for removal of billboards in the Hollywood Community Plan area, or (ii) a signage agreement with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). In 2007, in response to a court ordered injunction for a failure to apply its sign policy equally, the CRA removed the Temporary Special Display from its sign policy guidelines. The proposed revised Hollywood Signage SUD similarly removes Temporary Special Display as a sign type and requires a sign reduction plan for any new off-site supergraphic sign. This provision clearly benefits owners and sign companies with existing billboards to the detriment of other property owners and smaller sign companies.

The revised SUD will also reduce by up to 25 percent the sign reduction plan credit that may be obtained from removal of billboard and pole signs. JMBM has successfully obtained sign reduction plan credits for property owners for removal of billboards and pole signs on their property and applied these credits to new supergraphic signs in Hollywood.

Sign Company Settlements
In 2007, the City Attorney settled a lawsuit with CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Communications, which allowed the sign companies to maintain certain unpermitted signs while converting other billboards to digital signs. The City entered similar settlements with other sign companies. The companies then erected digital signs in residential areas of Silverlake and Venice without any public review or input. In reaction, neighborhood and non-profit groups, such as Ban Billboard Blight, lobbied City Council for tougher regulations and enforcement.

City Sign Enforcement Policy
The City’s comprehensive sign code revision will create a new era of sign enforcement and regulation. The draft Citywide sign code proposes penalty fees of $2,000 to $48,000 per day for unpermitted signs, based on the sign area, and allows a private right of action of individuals against their neighbors. The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) has also employed 16 additional inspectors, who have reviewed permits for over 5,400 existing signs this year. The City enforcement policy seeks to eliminate existing and new unpermitted signs as a means of reducing clutter; however, this task is daunting due to the City’s lack of organized sign permit records prior to the late 1990s. JMBM has successfully defended building owners against sign violations issued by the City, where the City officials failed to identify approvals and permits in their own records.

Recent Signage Litigation
The City has also been the target of multiple recent federal lawsuits regarding the constitutionality of the City sign code. In August 2008, in World Wide Rush et al v. City of Los Angeles, District Court Judge Audrey Collins found that the exceptions to the off-site sign ban provided unfettered discretion to City officials, and issued an injunction to restrain the City from enforcing certain provisions against the company. Other sign companies erected off-site signage without permits in reliance on this decision and subsequently filed suit. Judge Collins consolidated six of the sign cases, known as the Billboard Cases, and in April 2009 extended the injunction to include 18 signs leased by SkyTag, Inc. and others.

Similarly, in Roosevelt Hotel et al v. City of Los Angeles, JMBM represents the hotel owner and sign company, In Plain Sight Media, claiming that the City and CRA used unfettered discretion in failing to issue a sign permit for a supergraphic sign on the Roosevelt Hotel despite the City Planning Director’s approval. It also alleges that the City unconstitutionally applies its regulations unequally to the disadvantage of small sign companies. The case is currently pending in Federal Court.

The courts have upheld the Citywide sign ordinance in certain instances. In the January 2009 decision of Metro Lights, LLC v. City of Los Angeles, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that allowing certain exceptions, such as advertising on City owned bus stops and kiosks, did not invalidate the City’s ban on off-site signage. Although the City is revising its Citywide and Hollywood sign codes in response to the recent Federal Cases, it is likely that the amended codes will be the subject of future litigation after adoption.

Sheri Bonstelle is an attorney at Jeffer Mangels Butler and Marmaro LLP in the firm’s Government, Land Use, Environment and Energy Department. Sheri’s practice focuses on land use and construction matters. She is currently representing a number of clients seeking to secure signage rights in the City of Los Angeles. Sheri is both a lawyer and an architect.