Businesses in Los Angeles fear that they could become collateral damage in the city's war on supergraphics and electronic billboards.

A sign ordinance debated by the City Council last month contains provisions that would limit the size, placement and number of new signs on retail and company property. The maximum size of signs allowed under the new ordinance would be 30 percent smaller than under current law.

Testifying at a recent council hearing, representatives of businesses and sign companies claimed the rules would crimp their ability to advertise during the worst economic downturn in decades.

The ordinance was sent back to a council committee for further review and will return to the council in three months.

The main goal of the ordinance was to address controversies over giant signs on buildings, now known as supergraphics, as well as electronic billboards and thousands of billboards lacking permits. However, the ordinance also contains new limits for signs on or in front of businesses. Those restrictions are seen as severe problems for business owners.

"For many businesses, on-premises signage generates 50 percent of their customers," said Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce in recent testimony to the City Council.

Toebben and other business advocates said that the current regulations regarding business-front signage are sufficient, but they haven't been enforced.

City planning officials said the rules have to be consistent. As a result, businesses will fall under the same restrictions placed on billboards, digital signs and supergraphics.

However, the new ordinance will apply only to new signs; companies and retailers will be able to keep any signs that are allowed under the current rules, barring major remodeling or rebuilding.

Limitations and bans

The sign ordinance came before the City Council on May 26. The council voted to send the proposed ordinance back for further review for 90 days over concern about 20 sign districts the ordinance would set up across the city and to give City Attorney-elect Carmen Trutanich a chance to weigh in.

The proposed ordinance would require new on-premise signs to be about 30 percent smaller in surface area than existing signs. Any new or relocating business that needs an on-premise sign would have to comply with the new limits.

The restriction refers to the maximum allowed size of sign; however, many businesses do not build to the maximum size.

The size of sign allowed is calculated by a formula based on the square footage of the building that faces the street.

The ordinance would also ban new digital on-premise signs, such as those on or next to bank buildings that give the time and temperature or those used by Walgreen Co. of Deerfield, Ill., to advertise daily specials at its stores. Also, new "pole signs" typically used to identify all the businesses in a shopping center would face a strict height limit of 25 feet, regardless of the height or size of the surrounding buildings.

The upshot of all these restrictions, business advocates said, is that new on-site signs would be harder to see by passing motorists, reducing a vital flow of customers.

Also, businesses moving into an area would be at a competitive disadvantage with existing businesses allowed to keep their current larger and more visible signs.

"The last thing we want to do during these difficult times is to make it even harder than it already is to set up a new neighborhood business," said Jeff McConnell, a lobbyist with Arnie Berghoff & Associates, representing the California Sign Association.

The ordinance could also make it more difficult for major chain stores to have consistent signs at their newer and older locations.

That's the concern that Ross Stores Inc. of Pleasanton has as it is trying to open two stores in Los Angeles: one at the Beverly Connection shopping center across from the Beverly Center and one to replace a shuttered Circuit City store at Plaza La Cienega near the Santa Monica (10) Freeway.

"We would not have assurances that the signs that all Ross stores require would be acceptable at these locations under this ordinance," said Bill Moore, owner of Bill Moore & Associates of Albany, which specializes in placement of on-premise signs for Ross Stores and other retail clients.

Moore added that signs at several Ross store locations in the city are more than 20 years old and need replacing. If the proposed ordinance were to take effect, the size and design of the signs might have to change.

City planning officials said the concerns raised by business and sign industry advocates are exaggerated.

"In most cases, when businesses open or relocate, all they do is replace the lettering on existing signs, and that is definitely not covered by the ordinance," said Alan Bell, senior planning deputy and the chief architect of the proposed sign ordinance.

Bell said that the new size limits still allow for bigger on-premise signs than several other nearby cities, including Santa Clarita and Burbank.

"We're not hearing about any problems reading the signs in those cities," he said.

Bell said the city has to regulate all signs equally or face lawsuits.

"You have to treat similar types of structures and uses the same, so any lighted digital sign, whether for on-site or off-site purposes, must be treated the same," he said. "If you exempt one category, then it's easier to make an argument to exempt all of the signs, which is exactly the tack that the sign industry has taken in the past."

Wrong approach

But business advocates said Los Angeles is taking the wrong approach. Instead of restricting new signs, the city should order the removal of on-premise signs without permits and in violation of the current ordinance.

By some estimates, roughly half of the tens of thousands of on-site signs lack permits or violate existing codes. It's a far bigger problem than the estimated 4,000 illegal billboards in the city, business leaders contend. Forcing businesses to bring those signs into compliance with the existing ordinance or remove them would dramatically reduce the clutter of signs.

"Much more has to be done to enforce the laws already on the books," said Toebben, who added that businesses would even be willing to pay a fee to the city to fund the hiring of more city inspectors.

At last month's hearing on the proposed sign ordinance, the council approved a measure from Councilwoman Wendy Greuel directing city staff to study the feasibility of such an enforcement program and report back to the council within a year.

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