The billboard proposal set to hit the Santa Clarita City Council next week is a lesson on many things – sign law, ethics in government, the outdoor advertising business – but, most importantly, it’s a lesson on the price our neighbors pay when we don’t pay attention to the happenings going on at City Hall.
The neighbor, friend, and family member in question on this occasion is Julie Edwards, the owner of Edwards Outdoor Advertising, one of the oldest family businesses in Santa Clarita. According to the proposal, Metro is set to cancel the lease on Edwards’ billboards (along with several other billboards from CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel) in exchange for the city granting Metro three lucrative digital billboards along city-owned land by the 5 and 14 freeways.
For more than a decade, the city has targeted the billboard blight along the railroad. With this deal, the blight would finally be taken care of. In addition, the City, Metro, and All Vision, Metro’s consulting firm, are set to bask in the royalties from the boards, estimated to be close to a $100 million pot of gold, according to city documents.
Edwards, on the other hand, will lose 50 percent of its income, a debilitating blow. There wasn’t even talk of compensation for Edwards until Julie Edwards gave an impassioned plea for equity during January’s planning commission meeting.
“This company was my father’s piece of the American Dream,” she said, adding that her parents supported five children with the income.
Julie Edwards further explained that her business was necessary, due to her affordable rates and quality signage, for small business to thrive. ‘’It is important to think about us little people,’’ she added.
At the end of the meeting the commission brought the proposal to a vote, where it passed with a majority. The commission unanimously agreed, however, that Edwards Outdoor must receive some sort of compensation.
The genesis of the proposal starts a few years back, when Metro first came to the city with the concept for the deal, which seem to have gone like this: We will cancel leases for the railroad billboards, they said, if you acquiesce with three digital ones. Negotiate a deal with the billboard owners directly, and we cannot guarantee we will not contract with other advertising companies to build new billboards on the right of way.
Negotiate with the agency and we can put in writing not another billboard will go up, as well as cut you in on, eventually, $1.2 million dollars’ worth of annual revenue.
On the face of it, how could the City refuse? Sure, Edwards would close, but the City of Santa Clarita would take care of the ultimate goal of getting rid of billboard blight, at no cost to City Hall. (Per the deal, all construction will be handled by Metro and All Vision.)
Sixty-two billboards gone, in exchange for three.
And, with those terms, the freight train left the station, headed directly for Edwards Outdoor.
During the two-month PR campaign to sell this deal to the community, City officials have continuously restated the Metro talking point, that this was only to beautify the railroad, and that if they had partnered with Edwards and the other companies, they could not be protected along the right of way.
Either they are lying or their attorneys did shoddy preparation work. Section 5405.6 of the California Business and Professional Code explicitly states that Metro has to respect local regulations when building billboards along their right of ways. The only reasons why the current billboards are there is because they were erected before the City passed its sign ordinance in 1990, effectively banning all billboards within the city limits.
So, in reality, if the City was to go the other way, and do this billboard swap with the actual owners of the billboards, Metro would not be able to replace the boards with another company. Julie Edwards, in turn, would avoid the crushing blow to her business.
Industry sources say the city would be wise to cut a deal with the billboard owners, who would likely agree to take down not just the billboards along the railroad, but a majority of the other billboards they own within city limits. Such is the lucrative effect of digital billboards, which make a minimum profit of $8,000 per ad.
The city’s current path is setting the stage for lawsuits from CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel. It is a curious situation for city officials, who are expected to negotiate with the companies to buy out their other signs within Santa Clarita.
In light of these glaring complications, town cynics and “political realists” are asking the question whether this is about beautification at all. It is well known that Metro and the City of Santa Clarita are frequent collaborators, and that Metro holds the keys to several important city projects in the future, including the new Lyons to Dockweiler connector.
In the end, the City may have bitten off more than it can chew. In addition to potential action from the Feds over a Highway Beautification Act violation, (mentioned in the adjacent headline in today’s paper), City officials are likely to hear an earful from residents of Canyon Gardens, the Canyon Country community set to get a digital billboard 400 feet from their driveway. The planning commission report dances around the subject, mentioning a series of “mechanical louvers’’ that will mitigate potential adverse effects and “focus the viewing area and light transmission towards the intended freeway viewers and away from surrounding properties and surrounding habitat.’’
The design is nice, but nonsense in times of preventing glare, says Jerry Watchel, leading national traffic expert.
“Louvers restrict light from going upwards, they restrict light from going directly downwards, but the billboard still has to direct light at the cars going by on the freeway,’’ Watchel said. “As long as the surrounding homes are on the same level as the freeway, light will get in.’’
Watchel also noted the damaging effects that billboards have on surrounding home prices. A 2011 study by urban planner Jonathan Snyder said that homes within 500 feet of a billboard were worth $30,286 dollars less than homes that weren’t, on average.
So, to sum it up in full, the City is cutting a deal with a state agency, which is set to put out a small business that was going to go without compensation until the planning commission objected. Furthermore, the stated premise for doing the deal – to get protection on the railway – turns out to be false, and a potential alternative deal could end up with the City achieving its goals even more so than the deal at hand.
And, to top it all off, one of the billboards is set to be outside Canyon Country driveways, during a struggling housing market, where homeowners are in dire need to keep their property values through whatever means they can, let alone having to be bothered by a digital billboard illuminating their area. But hey, at least they’ll know what Coca Cola© has been up to, and GE and Geico® and Toyota and Chevron®…