Friday, January 23, 2009

The Revised Sign Ordinance - January 22nd Status Update

On Thursday, January 22nd The City of Los Angeles Planning Commission instructed the Department of City Planning to continue refining the proposed revision to the Sign Ordinance.  
Department of City Planning Staff also prepared an appendix comparing the current proposed revisions to other Cities.  The primary intent of the revised sign ordinance is to regulate the TIME, PLACE & MANNER of signs - and to be content neutral.

After hearing numerous concerns (that I will detail later below), the Commission instructed the Department to work on the following:

1.  Determine the most appropriate permit fees to erect signs
2.  Substantially increase the fines on illegal signs
3.  Highly emphasize the importance of enforcement and collaborate with LADBS to determine best practices;  Commissioner Fr. Spencer T. Kezios consented that the sign ordinance "isn't worth the paper its printed on, unless it can be enforced", i.e., LADBS admitted that the primary weakness of the current sign ordinance is that it cannot be adequately enforced by the Department.
4.  Further delineate a public art/ mural classification within the sign ordinance, and expand proposed the 100 sq. ft allowable area for murals.
  Double-check for unintended consequences to make certain that the revised code doesn't undermine downtown high-rise tenant ID, way-finding and environmental graphics signage programs.
5. Provide more visual examples of what signs would and would not be allowed under the new ordinance
6.  Justify and/or explain where they are coming up with some of their determinations, such as the 35 foot height limit
7.  Michael Woo reiterated AIA/LA's public testimony to convene a panel of design experts.  (However, Gail Goldberg's response to this was that the Department was under a strict deadline determined by the Council and would need to have the 2nd draft of the revised sign ordinance in front of the Planning Commission by February 19th, and to PLUM and to City Council prior to the end of the 3 month ICO, which began in late December 2008.
8.  M. Woo reminded the Commission that "signage is an enemy of good architecture" and responded to many of the economic concerns the room that feared businesses would not be able to strengthen their identity in the City without abundant signage by reminding them that we should stand up for local standards that mean something and rely on the unique architecture of a building to capture attention and to express the identity of a tenant citing the iconic example of the Transamerica building in San Francisco.

Other relevant comments by either Planning Staff, LADBS and/or City Attorney (during the hearing)
1.  The City Attorney reported that City of LA will be looking to advocate at the State level to bring back an amortization program
2.  LADBS reported that they only have 3 people on staff to enforce the City Sign Ordinance and that they have 3 more additional staff dedicated to completing the inventory of legal & illegal signs over the next three years.  M. Woo suggested that higher fines for illegal signs could pay for additional staff to do a more adequate job at enforcement.
3.  LADBS is the primary proponent for eliminating the distinction between on-site and off-site, claiming that they often lack the ability to judge a distinction and cited numerous examples, such as an iPod sign at a gas station where in fact brochures for iPods were available.  
4.  In response to Dennis Hathaway's concern that eliminating the distinction of on-site and off-site would further expand the canvas available for the commercialization of signs, M. Woo questions the Planning Department on the fact that the only way to mitigate this concern is if the new sign ordinance was actually more restrictive on the area of signage allowed, and that if it wasn't more restrictive on the area allowed, then Hathaway's concern was indeed justified because the unintended consequence of eliminating the distinction would be to see more off-site signs and fewer tenant identification signs, further commercializing the public realm.
5.  LADBS admitted that it did not have clear guidelines for enforcement, including no clear timeline for when an illegal sign must be removed.
6.  City Attorney noted that the City does indeed have the legal authority, as a matter or establishing policy, to either have a sign ordinance that does distinguish between off-site and on-site sign, or likewise may eliminate that distinction if so desired.  Portland is the only sizable City that does not distinguish b/w off and on-site and since they have more restrictive area allowed for signage, not inundated with commercial messages.

With regards to Public Testimony, here are the highlights:
1.  Councilmember Jack Weiss thanked the Department for expediting a quick first draft, which could be further shaped by public comment.  He recognized that cumulation of perspectives would help strengthen the ordinance.  He emphasized that the following details need to be approved:  
a.  Weiss feels the off-site/on-site distinction should be maintained (not eliminated)
b.  Weiss wants the penalties & enforcement guidelines to be explicit in the sign ordinance instead of just in the municipal code
c.  Weiss wants the fines increased and reminded the Department that at present "Crime Pays!", that it is presently the fines are lower than the amount of income earned from the illegal signs
d.  Weiss instructed the Department to review City of San Jose policy, which allows neighbors within 600 feet of illegal signs to sue for damages
2.  Quite a few public testimonials dealt with the definition of a sign district:  some felt 10,000 linear feet was too much, or that 5 separate owners was too much (especially since a single large-scale property owner might own much of the land); others felt that with regards to Sign Districts, The designation of Regional Centers should not override Specific Plans.   Also, certain people requested for additional provisions that would enable/regulate the annexation of space to enlarge current & pending sign districts.
3.  Retail signage programs:  if signs are too small, difficult to find businesses - resulting in CEQA concerns due to increased circulation traffic
4.  Do not limit murals to 100 square feet.  make it easier, not harder, for mom & pop stores to establish a connection with area youth groups engaged in creating art on the walls of a small grocer, for instance.
5.  Pat Gomez of the Cultural Affairs Department explicitly requests to work with the Planning Department to promote public art, especially since often new forms of public art do indeed use digital media.
6.  Sign Contractors testified that lack of enforcement is the primary problem.
7.  A representative from Westfield cautioned that the new sign limits would not be effective for tenants.
8.  A representative from Brookfield Properties cautioned against restrictive sign regulations, citing the greater need for corporate identity signs and the economic benefits that results from easily identifiable businesses.
9.  A representative from the CIM GROUP reminded the commission that to certain large-scale development projects, off-site signage programs are an integral design element and a key economic developer.
10.  Several developers argued in favor of their sign districts that had already been publicly vetted and requested for their sign districts to be 'grandfathered' into the ordinance.
11.  A rep. from the California Sign Association cited that it is absurd to link more regulation to a decrease in the proliferation of illegal signs, and cautioned towards the opposite to be true - that the more restrictive the regulations, the more illegal, non-complying signs you'd see.  He favorable fair and balanced regulation.
12.  Several members of the community cautioned the Planning Department to be certain to factor in key economic factors effected by the sign code, such as retail identification and revenue streams from both the advertising and the fact that small businesses often depend on billboards to promote their goods/services.
13.  Vanessa Rodriguez from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce testified to the Commission that outdoor advertising drives sales and promotes local businesses.  She reminded the Commission that there is no cost-effective media substitute and that billboards play an important role in the economic development of our City and encourage small business growth.
14.  Pacoima, CA constituents argues in favored of the big-box retail development occurring in their vicinity as a key driver in the economic recovery of their neighborhood and recognized signage as a critical & necessary component to the success of that big-box retail development.
15.  Several representatives from Neighborhood Councils argued in favor of a more restrictive sign ordinance and expressed key examples of how proliferation of signs/ commercial messages denigrates their neighborhoods, the public realm and contributes to the visual blight of their communities.
16.  A representative from Van Wagner Media offered their resources to help identify illegal signs and advocated for a better way to enforce the existing regulations with higher penalties.  He also encouraged the City to use their ZIMAS website to locate signs.
17.  Veronica Perez-Becker from the Central City Association encouraged the Commission to slow the revision process down, gather additional input from the business community and the community-at-large, enforce the existing rules, level the playing field and to recognize that for a City as diverse and as large as Los Angeles that one size does not fit all.  She also reminded the Commission about the potential negative impacts and unintended consequences the revised sign ordinance could have on our treasured cultural institutions.  Lastly, she cautioned the commission on what message this new ordinance would send to businesses, especially at a time when it was important for Los Angeles to attract more businesses to locate here and the importance of the City to be perceived as business-friendly.
18.  Paul Rohrer from Manett & Phelps requested that any sign districts already vetted through the public process prior to the ICO be exempted from the revised sign ordinance.
19.  Kent Hamilton of Thomas Properties Group encouraged the Commission to make a distinction between retail signage programs and corporate identity signage on high-rises.
20.  Craig Lawson cited issues with the 10,000 linear feet for sign districts and the clause stating that a 20% modification would require a hardship finding.  He also requested an exemption for any sign districts already undergoing the City process.
21.  Alex Windsor of Thomas Properties argued that the new regulations were punitive to property owners that played by the rules.
22. A representative from VICA emphasized that the business community needed to be made more aware about these proposed revisions and for the economic impact of this ordinance to be better understood, requesting the Department to conduct an economic impact study.
23.  Numerous lawyers from Latham & Watkins testified.  Each had separate and extremely constructive points to make emphasizing economic consequences; tenant identification signage; 1 to 1 ok for low-rise, need 5 to 1 for high-rise; exemptions for pending projects that have already been approved; transition rules need to apply for projects already in the development pipeline; with the new ordinance (as written) enforcement will be more difficult, not easier; we need to INCREASE our ability to enforce; eliminating the off-site/ on-site distinction further complicates the ordinance; the City needs to implement an ADMINISTRATIVE RIGHT OF ACTION program; the new sign ordinance would have negative environmental impacts and would need a CEQA review to ensure that more circulation & parking traffic was not created; that way-finding is  critical component and a public benefit that might be unintentionally impacted
24.  Numerous other speakers testified, each with valid points of contention and/or support.

Also, for point of reference, here is a link to the article in today's LA TIMES:  L.A. measure would ban new digital billboards

Lastly, I am attaching the text of the letter from former Planning Commission President Jane Usher to DCP staff Michael LoGrande and Alan Bell, which I feel encapsulates many overall concerns:

TO:    Michael LoGrande and Alan Bell  CC: CPC 
          Dennis Hathaway 
FROM: Jane Usher 
DATE: January 21, 2009 
The new sign ordinance and staff report are outstanding pieces of work. Congratulations on your thoughtful analysis. It would be fun and appropriately appreciative to identify each of the many well-reasoned provisions that you offer. But given the short time frame, as promised, here are my best, briefest insights regarding the questions that remain.  
Continued Proliferation? The documents do not answer squarely the $64,000 question. 
Which will more successfully achieve an appealing and safe City with fewer, attractive signs: the current off-site ban or the new proposal? 
(i) Reliance on pending lawsuits as a rationale for the proposed changes is misplaced. As of the favorable Ninth Circuit ruling in Metro Lights, the City is prevailing again in its defense of the current regulatory scheme that bans off-site signs. The City actions that do give legal pause in the billboard arena are the Settlement Agreements (which the City was never empowered to enter into) and its arguably overly discretionary standards for allowing sign districts and other exceptions to the off-site ban, not the ban itself. 
(ii) The objectives of the new ordinance are to create a simple-to-apply scheme that will produce a pleasing visual environment. How can the public tell whether the complex new limits on size, placement, and number will provide a handsome visual aesthetic? It is your obligation to demonstrate the benefits of the proposed rules. This demonstration could be achieved by the preparation of a dozen worst-case scenarios that depict a variety of commercial and residential contexts. Without these visual aids, everyone will be left to guess about the true impact. 
No enforcement protocol or sturdy penalties. The revisions are poised to go forward without a serious protocol regarding reduction of existing signs, enforcement, and penalties. Is it appropriate to offer this paper tiger palliative? For as long as the profits from illegal signs dramatically exceed any penalties that can be recovered, the exercise of adopting new sign rules cannot reasonably be expected to alter or curtail illegal behavior. 
Specific questionable passages. There is so much good about the proposal. That said, it appears to fall down in specific areas. These weak passages have the potential to swallow up the good work. Each must be scrutinized further to ensure that this won't/can't happen. 
Michael LoGrande and Alan Bell 
January 21, 2009 
Page 2 of 3 
1. Inadequate Purpose Clause. The "purpose" passage is horribly weak. It barely speaks to the all-important rationales of limiting proliferation and protecting the public, the pedestrians, the drivers, the residential neighborhoods, the uncluttered look of the City, the environment. Read as a whole, this clause could be construed as an endorsement of signs. Because any court that attempts to parse the motives of the City will rely upon this passage, it must be rewritten.  
2. Signs for Individual Premises. Are there other cities where separate sign allowances for each individual "premise" have been used successfully? Where? Please elaborate upon how it has been tested. This distinction seems ripe for abuse. What would prevent a property owner from creating dozens and dozens of alleged "premises"? 
3. Sign Heights, Types, Spacing, and Total Area. It is not possible to understand what the new height limits and size limits mean in real world terms without several "worst-case" illustrations. The DCP should develop a dozen or more illustrations depicting different building types and also the impact on a row of buildings to demonstrate the resulting streetscape. In addition, the two foot spacing between signs seems extremely weak. 
4. Temporary Signs. The proposed removal of a time limit for some of the so-called temporary signs is a problem. Clearly this loophole will be abused. Temporary signs will actually become permanent. In City of Lake Oswego, the Ninth Circuit endorsed a time limit for temporary residential/agricultural signs. 
5. Elimination of Freeway Exposure Constraints. This proposal is based on World Wide Rush, which is on appeal. Why act based on a lower court ruling, especially in light of the diverging views between the Ninth Circuit and its lower court? How will the City be protected from freeway blight? 
6. Extra Allowance for Flag Lots. This provision allows more sign square footage on substandard lots. Why? It appears to unnecessarily authorize MORE signage. 
7. Supergraphics and Walls Signs Generally. The rationale for collapsing several sign categories into the singe category "wall signs" seems just right. Do I correctly understand that the prohibition on covering exterior doors and windows is the new protective measure for our residents? If yes, great. 
8. Hazard Provision. This passage is mis-titled "Hazard to Traffic." Although the passage usefully identifies the potential for a sign to be a danger to persons or property (distinct from jeopardizing vehicles), it doesn't give life beyond harms to vehicles.  Language must be changed and added to address non-traffic hazards. 
Michael LoGrande and Alan Bell 
January 21, 2009 
Page 3 of 3 

9. Signs at Construction and Vacant Sites. This provision should be rewritten. It remains too vague and cumbersome. Why allow signs at these locations? Why limit them only in the almost-impossible-to-prove case of public nuisance? Why rely upon an unworkable enforcement protocol? If you must allow them, then this special passage should identify clear additional constraints on their size, placement, and removal. 
10.  Sign Modification Procedure. The procedure set forward is okay. But it should be added that any Sign Modification must require notice and hearing. This brings up a recurring notice problem – notices go to property owners within 500 feet; it would seem that notice should also go to any certified neighborhood council. 
11. Transition Rules. Our City is replete with higher density zones abutting lower density zones, without transition areas to ease drastic zone changes. The proposed ordinance relies strictly upon the property's zone for establishing sign rights. It would be beneficial to layer this with additional protections for our lower density zones within a specified distance of a higher density zone.  

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