The Long Beach City Council is close to fully adopting an ordinance that would regulate static billboards and allow construction of electronic advertising signs on a limited basis. Although the Council voted to approve the initial ordinance at their Jan. 7 meeting in a first-reading vote, representatives of a billboard company strongly opposed details in the ordinance language that specifically deal with a “cap and trade” program intended to limit the number of billboards in the city.
It’s not the first time that a billboard ordinance has been brought before the Council, which approved one draft of an ordinance back in December of 2011 in a first-reading vote, but it failed to get full approval in a second reading. Since then, the staff has revisited the issue with further suggestions for changes and has met with the companies with a vested interest in continuing their static billboard signs and expanding into electronic advertising.
More than 350 static billboards are scattered throughout Long Beach, according to figures provided by Director of Long Beach Development Services Amy Bodek, and the new ordinance will allow companies to build new billboards or expand or upgrade existing signs, provided that they agree to remove what is considered their “legal/non-compliant” billboards. These are signs that were constructed before the City began to regulate them.
At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Bodek explained how the staff determined which zones would be allowed to have signs, especially electronic billboards. Electronic signs were already prohibited by the City. Construction of new billboards would not be allowed in residential areas.
“It is an art rather than a science,” Bodek said, “because it does depend on…the approval of each individual [conditional-use permit]. So we can’t present this with 100-percent accuracy, but [it’s] certainly our best guess.”
There is no requirement for companies to actively remove any of their billboards. However, if a company wants to install a new sign or expand or convert an existing sign, they must comply with specific requirements to permanently remove non-compliant billboards. City staff has proposed a removal ratio for different kinds of billboard projects. The policy assumes that a company already has an inventory of billboards in the city that are legal/non-compliant. (See Figure 1 for a summary of the removal requirements.)
These ratios are based on square footage of the billboard that will be constructed or expanded, and not in terms of “whole” billboards.
In an example involving a current billboard company wanting to propose building a new electronic sign with an area of 600 square feet, the company would be required to remove about 4,800 square feet of its billboard inventory that is non-compliant. The ordinance will not allow a portion of a sign to be removed. Only whole billboards may be removed. It would be up to the company to determine which billboard structures would be taken down.
Those companies that do not have any signs in Long Beach can enter into development agreements with the City.
However, a few billboard companies oppose parts of the ordinance. The most vocal opposition came from Regency Outdoor Advertising representatives, who argued against a key portion in the ordinance called Section C.
Mike Murchison, a consultant for Regency, said that Section C would take out about half of their inventory if they chose to participate in the digital program. He said that the billboard signs along the freeway have never been controversial, and he explained that these signs were installed before any state or city law rendered them non-compliant.
He argued that the intent of the ordinance is to take billboards out of residential neighborhoods.
“It’s one sentence,” he told the Council.
Victor De la Cruz, an attorney representing Regency, agreed. He added that if the particular section in the ordinance is not removed, the City would be “forcing Regency…to take down its freeway-oriented signs on the 405– its most valuable signs– in order to be able to participate in the digital program.” In an e-mail to the Signal Tribune, Bodek described Regency’s current inventory of signs.
“Regency owns 15 billboard structures, which are located along the 710, 405 and 91 freeways,” Bodek said. “Each billboard is on its own individual pole and is not attached to a building.” She further explained that some of these poles have single-sided advertising or double-sided advertising. Along the 405 Freeway, Regency owns one single-sided pole and two double-sided poles.
Third District Councilmember Gary DeLong acknowledged that it would be a problem for companies with a smaller inventory to be required to remove billboards before they can even get permission to construct a new electronic sign. He at first suggested that the staff and Council consider allowing companies to construct a new sign but not turn them on until they have complied with the City’s requirements for removal.
Bodek voiced her concerns with DeLong’s proposal. She argued that if a company does effectively “flip the switch” on a new electronic sign to before the City had permitted them to do so, officials would have no authority to force the company to remove non-conforming billboards.
DeLong suggested that perhaps the City could levy a fine on those companies that do not fully comply with the removal requirements before they begin advertising on an electronic sign. He suggested a fine of $1,000 per day.
Bodek emphasized that the electronic sign business is “very lucrative.” She suggested that the companies agree to buy a “significant” cash bond for each of the billboards designated for removal.
“The conversion of billboards to electronics provides immense revenues and is a significant benefit to all of the companies who have inventory within the city,” Bodek said. “So I don’t know what your realm of ‘significance’ is, but in my realm, it’s clearly more than a $1,000. You know, I would probably add a few zeroes to that.”
The Council unanimously voted in favor of the staff recommendation to approve the initial ordinance but added two friendly amendments. Within 60 days after the ordinance becomes effective, the staff has been requested to return to the Council with more guidance on Section C, the controversial portion of the ordinance. The other friendly amendment would deal with removing the stipulation that forces companies to take down billboards prior to construction of a new billboard. The proposal would require that a cash bond be posted in a “significant” amount at the time of approval for each billboard that is scheduled to be removed. ß