Proposed New Penalties For Signs in LA

Gail Chiasson, North American Editor

It seems like Los Angeles is taking a page from New York’s book of rules regarding penalties for off-site sign regulations – but maybe even more so.

LA, which already forced the removal of 100 digital signs put up by Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor is now looking at two specific new issues: Concerns around the proposed penalties for violations of off-site sign regulations; and the question of how to resolve the status of over a thousand existing off-site signs that may fall under the state ‘rebuttable presumption’ law.

The ‘rebuttable presumption’ law essentially states that existing off-site signs that have been in place for five years or more without being issued an order to comply may be presumed legal, unless a governmental entity proves otherwise.

We understand that most of the signs would likely be what DailyDOOH refers to as ‘static billboards’, but since the report we’ve seen refers to the inability of some boards to change to digital, and since some digital network companies also own static boards, we figured that we’d try to summarize the many paragraphs of legalize.

Taking into account how penalties for sign violations are dealt with in NY, LA City departments are proposing a citywide sign ordinance that contains substantial penalty provisions for off-site sign violations. The proposed penalty amounts are substantially higher than the processing fee of several hundred dollars that is currently charged to those who violate the current code.

In 2006, the City of New York enacted a new penalty system to address its proliferation of illegal billboards. The new regulations enable the City of New York to issue penalties of $15,000 for a first offense and $25,000 for each subsequent offense. (In practice, the amount the City charges for a first offense is $10,000.) The law is written in such a way that outdoor advertising companies and landowners may be held separately liable for illegal billboards, and when these two parties are one and the same, the total penalties assessed are doubled in magnitude. In addition, a sign can be cited and penalized for each regulation that the sign violates; eg, if the sign is in violation for its location, sign area and height, the total penalty can be three times the penalty amount for a single offense.

Although the new regulations were followed by litigation against New York City, the penalties have held up well in court, and have produced marked benefits in the built environment. Since 2006, approximately 14,000 illegal sign penalties have been issued, and around 3,000 illegal billboards have been removed, 300 of which were located along arterial highways (a prohibited location). The result is a significantly less cluttered visual environment.

The proposed penalty system for the City of Los Angeles is modeled after New York City’s successful penalty structure. Off-site signs in violation of the regulations would be subject to a penalty ranging from $2,500 to $48,000 per day, depending on the size of the sign and how long it has been in violation. Examples of the proposed penalties are (for first, second and third violations): For a sign of less than 150 sq. ft. $2,500, $4,000, $8,000; for one of 750 or more sq. ft. $12,000, $24,000, $48,000.

There is a proposed ‘grace period’ is 15 days from the date of citation until penalties start to accrue. This is intended to allow the sign owner time to correct the violation and/or resolve any questions or issues with the Department of Building and Safety, which issued the citation. After the grace period has passed, penalties can still be waived if the sign copy is removed, saving the sign owner the cost of removing the sign structure while the owner attempts to resolve the matter.

The proposed ordinance provides a special process for sign penalty appeals, as well as expedited appeals, recognizing that off-site signs are very lucrative and each day spent waiting for an appeal can represent a significant loss of revenue. There is some controversy on whether penalties should be suspended during the appeal process.

According to the report we’ve seen, the proposed penalty system would include and be implemented alongside a number of measures designed to provide a fair regulatory system for sign owners while at the same time minimizing the risk to the City. The overall goal is to deter code violations and protect the City’s visual environment in a manner that is fair to all parties – while enabling off-site sign code enforcement to be handled through a penalty system that will be taken seriously.

LA Department of Building and Safety estimates that there are over a thousand existing offsite signs whose permit and/or enforcement status is currently stuck in limbo due to a lack of clarity at the City level in regard to the California State ’rebuttable presumption’ law.

City staff is now recommending new procedures to resolve the permit status of these signs.

In order to rebut the presumption that they were ‘lawfully erected’, the City would have to prove that a sign, as it exists, could not have been legally built according to the codes effective at the time the sign was erected.

Some of those existing off-site signs that have not been cited in five years include signs that have no permit on record, while others have a permit but do not comply with that permit. An example of signs not in compliance with their permits are signs that were issued a permit for a single face sign but currently have two faces. The state law is rather open-ended in that it is not clear whether and how it can be proven that any of the existing signs were built illegally, and the City’s interpretation of the state law has until now been undetermined.

Department of Building and Safety has thus been unable to issue citations for any of these signs, and has also been unable to grant any permits to legalize the existing signs. The impact of this uncertainty includes a financial impact on the sign owners, and on the City’s ability to reduce off-site sign clutter.

There shall be a rebuttable presumption that an advertising display is lawfully erected if it has been in existence for a period of five years or longer without the owner having received written notice during that period from a governmental entity stating that the display was not lawfully erected.

There are also two categories of signs in LA that have been awaiting an interpretation of the state law. Those categories are signs with no permit, and signs that have a permit but do not comply with it. Different solutions to handle these differing categories of signs are being recommended.

The term ‘lawfully erected’ does not apply to signs that were erected with a permit but were subsequently modified without a permit in a manner that causes them to become illegal. The Department of City Planning, in conjunction with the Department of Building and Safety and the Office of the City Attorney, recommends that off-site signs in this category be deemed to be not under the protection of the state ‘rebuttable presumption’ law, and in violation of the sign regulations. These signs would thus be subject to citation and enforcement, including the new proposed Administrative Civil Penalties, and would not be eligible for sign credits or removal under the proposed sign reduction program.

In consideration that these signs may have existed in their modified condition for several years and the sign companies may need additional time to correct the issue due to contractual or logistical limitations, the recommendation is that these signs be given a 60-day grace period after the effective date of the proposed citywide sign ordinance.

The situation is different for those signs for which there is no permit on record. For these signs, there is little to no evidence that could be used to prove their illegality. For various reasons, they would be allowed to remain in their current condition without being subject to citation or enforcement, and would not be subject to the new proposed Administrative Civil Penalties.

These signs would also be eligible for sign credits and removal under the proposed sign reduction program. However, their non-conforming status would not allow for them to be converted to digital displays or to undergo any other significant work beyond what is currently allowed by the code for legal non-conforming signs. The ban would remain in place and no alterations or enlargements that violate the ban could be performed, including conversion to digital.

There are several Los Angeles districts to be ‘grandfathered’ and so are unlikely to affected by the new proposals.

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