Dangerous Game? Grandfathering Applied-for Sign Districts

Originally published October 21, 2015

Approximate boundaries of sign district proposed for Koreatown area by City Councilman Herb Wesson. It is one of 11 proposed for exemption from new regulations restricting location and requiring billboard takedown.

This 2015 post about Sign Districts is relevant for the legal opinion that the City Attorney offered regarding the rationale for creating such districts. Because any sign district would carve out an exception to a citywide ban on new signs (passed in 2002), each new district must have a reason for existing, and the city must show that it considered environmental and traffic safety concerns before approving a district. Currently in 2021 the city is actively considering creating a new type of sign district with looser zoning parameters than the previous districts. If these new districts, called Tier 3 Districts, proliferate as some on the Council would like, then the 2002 sign ban could be rendered invalid.

On April 30, 2008, the Los Angeles City Council directed the city’s Planning Department to begin preparing the environmental impact report and other documents needed to establish a sign district in a four square-block area just west of downtown. But to date, none of those documents have been prepared and no details have been made public about signage envisioned for the area, which is occupied by parking lots and several low-rise commercial buildings, one of which is an L.A. Department of Water and Power facility.

Two months later, the council took the same action on a proposal by Councilman Herb Wesson for sign district covering a 150-square block area of Koreatown.  Again, to date that proposal has not moved beyond the City Council’s approval of Wesson’s motion.

In 2009, the City Planning Commission approved a new citywide sign ordinance that, among other things, significantly toughened the rules for establishing sign districts, which were initially created as an exemption to the city’s 2002 ban on new off-site signs. Under the new ordinance, the districts could only be located in one of 21 areas zoned for high-intensity commercial use, and before any new billboards or other kinds of off-site advertising signs could put up in the districts, existing billboards would have to be taken down in the surrounding communities.

At the time of the CPC action, there were nine pending sign district applications, proposed either by City Council members or developers. Two of those had been approved by the commission, but the others had undergone little to no processing by the Planning Department. The CPC decided to “grandfather” those two and allow them to proceed to the City Council under existing rules, which allowed sign districts in any commercial area of the city and didn’t require any takedown of existing billboards. The other seven, including the two described above, would be subject to the new, much more stringent requirements.

Under pressure from lobbyists and some City Council members, the council’s PLUM committee put those seven “applied-for” districts on the grandfathered list, and over time added others, bringing the total to 15. (The current number is 11, because four of the 15 were subsequently approved by the City Council.)

While this was going on, the city was battling sign companies that had mounted legal attacks on the off-site sign ban, arguing that the sign district exception, among other things, undermined the ban’s purpose and rendered it unconstitutional. A federal judge agreed, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals eventually overturned that decision. In a 2011 report to the PLUM committee, the city Planning Department addressed the ruling and its relevance to the issue of grandfathering sign districts:

As a result of the court decision in the case of World Wide Rush v. City of Los Angeles, the Office of the City Attorney has recommended that two additional findings be added to the required findings for Sign Districts. These findings should apply to all new Sign Districts approved from this point forward, to ensure that the City’s sign ordinance is not legally vulnerable. The findings essentially require that impacts on aesthetics and traffic safety created by exceptions to the City’s ban on off-site signs be counterbalanced by improvements in terms of aesthetics, blight reduction, or traffic safety. In order to ensure that these findings are adequately supported and that the visual and traffic safety impacts of Sign Districts are mitigated by improvements to the City’s visual environment, the Planning Department recommends that the Sign Reduction and Community Benefits requirements for new Sign Districts also be extended to initiated or applied for Sign Districts and Specific Plans proposed to be “grandfathered“.

In other words, exempting sign districts from takedown requirements was a bad idea that could moot the freshly-inked and hard-fought legal victory.

From that point forward, successive versions of the sign ordinance discussed by the PLUM committee still allowed “applied-for” sign districts to be located outside the high-intensity commercial zones, although some of them actually complied with that restriction.  However, the ordinance explicitly required all grandfathered districts to comply with the billboard takedown requirement. That issue, along with the location restrictions, was further addressed in a 2013 report by the City Attorney’s office to the committee.

The courts will only uphold a sign district if a city provides sufficient reasons for the creation of the district. Therefore, the City needs to carefully and fully articulate such reasons at the time it creates a sign district. The creation of the sign district should be tied to the City’s interests in traffic safety and aesthetics.

Creating too many sign districts or exempting too large a portion of the City from a sign ban might cause a future court to strike down the sign bans. During the hearing on the Vanguard case, the Ninth Circuit indicated that the existence of too many sign districts in a city might work at cross purposes to the sign bans. If that were to occur, the bans would no longer adequately improve aesthetics and traffic safety and would thus be invalid under the First Amendment. To address this issue, the draft ordinance helps to limit the number of sign districts in the City by limiting their location to regional centers and, as explained below, by requiring a minimum size for sign districts.

While the policy decision as to whether to grandfather the 15 proposed sign districts is the City Council’s to make, the Council will have to make findings for each of those individual sign districts that comply with the World Wide Rush decision.

That’s where things stood until the very end of a PLUM committee meeting in June of this year, when chairman Jose Huizar announced, without any preceding discussion, that it was the “intent” of the committee that grandfathered sign districts should not have to comply with any of the restrictions of the new sign ordinance. In other words, they could be located in any commercial zone and not have to take down any existing billboards in exchange for new signs.  Whether or not those on the City Attorney’s staff who successfully argued the big sign cases winced at Huizar’s statement isn’t known.

What happens now?  At its Sept. 24 meeting, the CPC appeared to throw cold water on the whole idea of grandfathering any sign districts it hadn’t previously approved, although no formal vote was taken on the sign ordinance. The commission is meeting again tomorrow, Oct. 22, to continue discussion of the ordinance and the issue will no doubt come up.