Whatever happened to San Diego's ordinance banning billboards? Has it faded into a dim memory since the City Council adopted the measure in February of 1972 that was to banish billboards from the city limits by January 1976? The first boards, those worth less than $500, were to come down on April 1, 1973; the boards worth $20,000 or more were to fall by January 1, 1976. Yet, anyone who does not walk with his nose pointed at the ground may have noticed that the horizon is still fragmented by the 25- and 35-foot-high advertising structures.
In what ecology and conversation groups called a "Courageous" decision, the San Diego City Council vote 5 to 4 to adopt the billboard ban. With the adoption, they chose to ignore the findings and unanimous vote of their own 11-member ad hoc committee which advocated regulation instead of abolition of local billboards.
The ordinance did not provide for any financial compensation to the owners of the boards, and the measure exempted certain signs. But the council's move basically spelled the end of the profits billboards contributed to San Diego's $5 million annual outdoor advertising business.
Before the final vote, Mayor Wilson threw a little more salt in the wounds of the advertisers by paraphrasing an Ogden Nash poem.
- I think that I shall never see
- a poem as lovely as tree
- indeed unless the billboards fall
- I may not see a tree at all
— and the battle began.
Almost before the ink was dry on the ordinance documents, attorneys for Foster and Kleiser, and Pacific Outdoor Advertising, San Diego's two largest billboard companies, launched a preliminary injunction against the city. Lawyers with firms in Los Angeles and Phoenix, working with local lawyers, are determined to prove the ordinance, "unconstitutional, void, invalid, unenforceable, and illegal." The language is redundant, but the message is clear. The people involved in the local billboard industry will not give up their $5 million a year business without a fight. And, with the trial originally postponed from March, 1973, to September, 1973, and delayed until after February 1 , 1974, the companies have gained a considerable amount of time to remain in operation.
In essence, the injunction prevents the city from removing any signs, but also prohibits any new signs from being constructed. Yet, the advertising may still be changed each month, and business, according to several billboard executives, is still booming.
:All we are asking for is not to be put out of business," says Perry Lieber, vice president and manager of Pacific Outdoor Advertising Company. "I wish we could all get together and come up with satisfactory regulations and controls that will please both sides."
The two "sides" are the "ecology kooks," as another executive call them, and the people who benefit directly from the billboards. This latter group not only includes the owners and office personnel of the billboard companies, but the carpenters and electricians who build the boards, the artists who paint them, the men who silkscreen the standard paper posters, and, of course, the man who leases a tiny parcel of land near the Coronado Bridge to a sign company for $1600 a month.
Lieber, a tall, tan, well-groomed gentleman, explains that billboards are one of the most efficient forms of advertising, offering advertisers a concentrated market, and wide exposure, all for a reasonable price. A standard 12x20-foot silk-screened poster to be displayed for a month costs about $100 to $144. The larger, 14x48' hand-painted bulletin will run and advertiser around $800 a month, depending on its location.
"the city passed the ordinance, and then forgot it — but we certainly didn't," Lieber concludes.
One city employee would by no means agree with Lieber's conclusions. Alan Sumption is an attorney for the city, responsible for the billboard ordinance litigation. "My office is filled with stacks of paper, and my files are growing by the ream because I have people running all over the city, collecting data on 2000 billboards," Sumption says. He explains that he and the attorneys for the billboard industry are going through the process of "discovery." "This means you can find out almost everything the other side knows, to avoid surprise at the trial." Sumption and his staff must collect an individual file on each billboard because the opposing attorneys have requested the information.
According to Sumption, Foster and Kleiser attorneys have also tried to take depositions from each councilman who voted for the ordinance to find out why they did.
"I tried to get a protective order from the judge to prevent them from doing this, but failed," Sumption explains. The effect of what they're doing is mere harrassment," Sumption will represent the city at the trial which should take place next February if all goes well, Sumption wouldn't make any predictions regarding the outcome of the case.
There is a man who is very optimistic that his lawyers will quash the city billboard ban, however. Randy Oxenham, a public relations man for Foster and Kleiser, says, "I wouldn't be surprised if our case goes all the way to the Supreme Court!" He greets visitors to his stark, modern office, with a smile radiating out from under his pale, blond mustache.
"A legitimate marketing function is being destroyed, and we have to fight for our rights to remain in business," he says. "We feel the ordinance violates the First, Fifth, and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments." Oxenham insists that visitors receive two pamphlets of what he calls "industry propaganda," and also sees hat they glance at a book of quotations from satisfied Foster and Kleiser clients.
"We do $5 million worth of public service advertising nationwide, and we just awarded $10,000 to the man who created the 'There's a Name for People Who Don't Use Seat Belts-STUPID' poster," he says proudly. With his thatch of blond hair and navy-blue t-shirt, he looks like h should be coaching a football team instead of working in his cold beige-on-beige office.
"With our case against the city, San Diego will be watched by outdoor advertisers all over the United States," he says seriously. His parting word are ominous. "If local government can take us in one day, who will be the next to go?" he asks, not really expecting an answer.
The final answer for Oxenham lies with the courts now, but to people like Jack Haberstroh, who had been fighting off-premise billboards for years, the only answer is the demise of San Diego's 2000 "visual polluters."
"People just aren't going to tolerate billboards anymore," he claims. "We will continue to fight against them, and insist the courts uphold the city ordinance." Haberstroh, an assistant professor of journalism at San Diego State University, has presented numerous public opinion surveys and reports on billboards to the City Council.
"My students and I did three surveys prior to the council's vote on the ordinance, and of the hundreds of people reached in person, by mail or by phone, it was running about 75 to 82 percent, in favor of the billboard ban." Haberstroh sits in his quiet suburban home, reflecting on the hours of time he has spent on the billboard issue. A five-inch-thick file of data about billboards is the evidence of his concern.
"I was the only advertising professor and professional to speak before the council in faobt of the billboard ban," he says. "All my friends in the advertising business have since disowned me," he adds with a wry smile.
Haberstroh says San Diego is the 105th California city to pass some type of ordinance regulating or prohibiting billboards. His data is from a booklet published by the California Roadside Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group concerned with protecting the beauty of state roads.
"Del Mar, Oceanside, La Jolla, Solana Beach, Chula Vista, National City, and El Cajon all have some type of ban or restriction on billboards." He scoffs at the billboard executives' claim that they would use self-imposed controls to regulate the number of boards. "They just stick them up anywhere! There's a man living not more than a mile from where we sit, with a giant 'Char-Burger" billboard hovering right over his house!" Haberstroh intends to continue his support of the ordinance, along with people in groups like the Roadside Council, the League of Women Voters, and local ecology and community planning organization.
The billboard controversy not only boils within the city limits, but has run into the county, too.
"When the city passed their ordinance against billboards, the Board of Supervisors become concerned that billboards would be built all over the county," explains Roger Courtney, an associate county planner, who is responsible for creating a billboard ordinance about 21 months ago, prohibiting all billboard construction, but that moratorium technically ended on July 23." Courtney says the billboard companies could legally be racing around inside the county limits erecting new boards, but to show their goodwill, they are waiting for a county ordinance to set down guidelines.
"The county ordinance my staff prepared and sent to the supervisors is much more lenient and flexible than they city's." Courtney says he fears the supervisors will weaken its major points even further, due to pressure from the billboard industry.
The ordinance, prepared by Courtney and the Special Projects Division, has 26 pages of regulations, and a five-year schedule to remove all unconforming billboards in the county limits. Courtney says several workshops were held by the county, where ecology groups, community leaders, interested citizens, and members of the billboard industry were invited to present their views on the issue.
"There was very little input from the anti-billboard groups, which may explain why the Board of Supervisors has taken a more flexible, middle-of-the-road attitude about billboard control," concludes Courtney.
Because public interest in the billboard issue has been very low, according to a city council spokesman, and Mr. Courtney speaking for the county, it appears the billboard question has faded from the minds of the local citizens. Perhaps San Diegans believed that when the February 1972 ordinance was adopted by the city, the Marlboro Man and the Black Velvet Woman would fade from the streets and freeways. But the legal future of San Diego's outdoor advertising industry may not be decided for years. The intricacies of the court system and the slow-moving feet of local government have brought anti-billboard groups, once the winners, a temporary defeat.
At the July 31 Board of Supervisors meeting, the county's billboard ordinance was scheduled for a hearing. The rear of the hall was occupied by a small group of double-knit-suited billboard executives and their attorneys. In the front rows a cluster of trim, suburban matrons sat anxiously waiting to speak their piece against the "35-foot monsters" as one woman called billboards.
Supervisor Lou Conde, in a brilliant orange velour jacket accented by a kelly-green tie, called the meeting to order and asked for a rundown of the board's agenda. The blue-haired clerk in a matching blue knit outfit studied the document and advised Conde that they wouldn't have enough time to devote to the billboard issue that afternoon. She flipped through a calendar, and amid the grumblings from the billboard executives, announced, "There's room to consider this matter on August 28."
Conde's elfish face was overtaken by a huge grin, as he sarcastically asked her, "Is that August of this year, or next year?"