Property Rights

Slipped a Mickey?

One man's light pollution is another man's historic landmark


If you happen to be a 5-year-old, having a giant illuminated Mickey Mouse dancing on your bedroom walls is probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to you. But for a grown-up, discovering that the billboard outside your bedroom window has been replaced by a digital LED billboard flashing a rotating cast of Mickeys and Paris Hiltons bright enough to shame the sun may be a little less pleasing.

These grumpy adults must have justice, and so the battle is joined in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, where digital billboards have started cropping up in residential areas.

The city tried to ban new billboards in 2002, and the lawsuits got fairly tedious for everyone involved. So a deal was cut two years ago: Clear Channel and the other billboard companies dropped their legal challenge to the city's ban on billboards in exchange for permission to upgrade existing signs. And hidden inside the deal was an important little detail—these upgrades wouldn't require a zoning review.

Most residents of Los Angeles wouldn't find a billboard or two a shocking sight. After all, there are 11,000 in the area, making it the biggest billboard media market in the country. In virtually every case, a shiny new digital billboard is merely replacing an existing traditional billboard, which suggests that most of the neighborhoods in question aren't exactly quasi-bucolic Wisteria Lanes. People who already have billboards outside their windows probably shouldn't act so shocked or pronounce themselves utterly unprepared for the arrival of a different billboard outside their windows.

But a few L.A. residents have professed themselves surprised, and a NIMBY phone call or two later, a small army of politicians—including those who cheerfully collaborated on the compromise deal two years ago—suddenly have plans to end the scourge of billboards. No fewer than three were proposed on Wednesday. Strictly speaking, they won't really end the scourge of billboards, because after all, who doesn't like the touch of light and color that they bring to the Sunset Strip, right? But they will definitely end the scourge of perfectly legal billboards in fairly gentrified residential neighborhoods. Of course, at the same meeting where all this metaphorical chest thumping was occurring, discussions continued unabated on the topic of adding new billboard districts in Koreatown and near the 110 Freeway, not to mention wrapping the convention center in illuminated billboard space. Brave politicians strike a blow for justice.

City Council President Eric Garcetti, for instance, has a plan to impose a temporary moratorium on upgrades, and he has "asked Delgadillo's office and the City's Department of Building and Safety to review [California Environmental Quality Act ] CEQA laws and look for possible loopholes that would force all 850 additional billboards still to come, to go through environmental review."

Though it's not likely, one would hope that real environmentalists would rise up in fury against this kind of behavior. Garcetti is hoping that he can find a way out of the mess he and his fellow city officials created by advancing under the green flag of truce and striking a deathblow to the same billboard companies they sat at the negotiating table with just two years ago. One can imagine the environmental review now: "Wait! These illuminated billboards consume electricity?" they'll say in mock surprise. "They emit light? Well, we'll have to look into that." The folks at the Curbed LA blog put it more bluntly: "CEQA can kill anything."

The health of Mother Earth is clearly not the real issue here—language about light pollution and power consumption will just be a cover for aesthetic complaints. Totally legitimate aesthetic complaints, mind you. Those billboards are pretty ugly. But in most cases there aren't even rapacious lawbreaking corporations to blame: The companies were merely doing what the city said they were allowed to do, in the manner that the city said they were allowed to do it. This will not stop people from blaming the corporations, of course.

Consider the manifesto posted at the base of one of the billboards in Silver Lake: "It is visible from many of our living rooms. Its 50,000 watts of power flash a cavalcade of tacky advertisements at one per five seconds…. We have worked hard…making Silver Lake a beautiful and desirable place to live, only to see all that work substantially devalued by a mega-corporation that cares nothing about our community." Tacky? Mega-corporations? Sigh.

City officials are the ones at fault here. They made a bad deal and after two years of confusing exemptions, moratoria, and other power games, they've been called out. Consistent, logical laws about property use make property more valuable. The city's games have made the property of Silver Lake homeowners and billboard companies less valuable. Good work guys.

I wouldn't be thrilled either to discover that I had a new neon bed buddy—I'm a snob too, Silver Lakers. I feel your pain. But my most recent city of residence, Boston, makes fairly regular sport of freaking out about its own illuminated billboard, the giant Citgo sign near Fenway (which caught fire this week, coincidentally). Someone always wants to take it down or turn it off—power shortages, feisty Venezuelan dictators, light pollution—you name it, someone has used it as a reason to kill the Citgo sign. But it's also considered a historic landmark in the city. Which just goes to show that one man's eyesore can be another man's beacon of home.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor of reason.

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  1. I, for one, trulyu enjoy the electronic billboard for Rachel's Steak House and Gentlemen's Club Interpretive Dance Theater in Orlando, Fl so much that I go about 1/2 mile out of my way to and from work just to view it.

    Folks in LA need to chill.

  2. Although the blade runner pic is appropirate for a story set in LA, I might have gone with the Kramer/Kenny Roger's Roasters based on the decription in openning paragraph.

  3. I like the hottie Asian chick on that billboard.

    [subtle attempt at changing the google ads]

  4. Guy,

    I went there for a bachelor party many years ago. Don't remember any food.

  5. PL,

    I went there the other day. Only had Foster's and bought a couple of drinks for the dancer young lady artist who sat by me most of the time. Was quite a nice night.

  6. Those billboards are pretty ugly. But in most cases there aren't even rapacious lawbreaking corporations to blame: The companies were merely doing what the city said they were allowed to do, in the manner that the city said they were allowed to do it. This will not stop people from blaming the corporations, of course.

    Just because you can do something legally, doesn't mean that it is a good idea to do it in all cases. It seems that the media companies didn't even consider whether or not it would be a good idea to upgrade the billboards in residential areas.

    I'm sorry but there is culpability on the part of the corporations (who I am sure lobbied for the zoning review exception).

    Granted, the politicians are also to blame, but this whole article is basically a sob story trying to paint poor little media companies as some sort of victim. Clear Channel et al were also negotiating parties of the deal that was hammered out, so they share equal responsibility for the outrage of the people who are effected.

    Unless you expect us to believe that the zoning review exception was solely the idea of the politicians??

    The reality is that the media companies chose to upgrade billboards in residential areas to ones that emit bright light without any consideration of whether or not it will be a nuisance or whether there would be a backlash in certain locations -- and the residents are rightfully pissed. They should be pissed at their representatives for allowing it, and pissed a the companies who decided to not even consider the fact that the upgrades are going to be a nuisance in residential areas.

    There is plenty of blame to go around, and the media companies are anything but "victims".

  7. Guy,

    I'm long past the days where I go to such places, being willingly held in fee simple by Mrs. Libertate; however, I recall that Rachel's was a higher caliber location. Tampa generally tends to skankier tastes.

  8. So when are they going to deal with that massively tacky huge billboard-ish thing in Hollywood Hills? That was created as an ad, too.

  9. PL,

    I did notice that I was providing more $5 donations for ink-free performers than the $1 donations I provide to the inked artists. Seems the artists are improving with this generation.

  10. It gets destroyed in 2014 when the God Emperor Bloomberg eliminates all billboards and billboard-like phenomenon.


  12. "God Emperor Bloomberg" That kind of rolls of your tongue.

  13. "This will not stop people from blaming the corporations, of course."

    "there is culpability on the part of the corporations"

    Ah caught me a marlin!

  14. If Arlington, VA does not start getting more electronic billboards soon, I am leaving the country!

  15. I'd think that a few shots from a decently-powered pellet gun would be a quick and quiet way to get rid of neighborhood light pollution.

  16. In a place like L.A. light pollution isn't exactly a relevant issue. Every modern major city is bathed in a sickly orange glow all night anyway. If it's really having a substantial impact on the quality of life for people living below/beside it, there are a variety of good compromises that could be considered before tearing the things down.

  17. John-David: It's Kooklifornia; they're not allowed to have dangerous weapons like pellet guns. I was amused at the mention of the Citgo sign in the linked article, having gone to college in its shadow. Maybe we should show our opinion of Chavez's policies by nationalizing it - I mean, sauce for the goose...

  18. Every modern major city is bathed in a sickly orange glow all night anyway.

    That's thanks to those god-awful lower-cost lamps that started replacing older white lamps a couple decades ago.

  19. God Emperor Bloomberg...

    Yes, I can definitely see him as a giant hybrid human/sandworm, thundering his proscriptions against cigarettes, transfats, and Tleilaxu treachery.

    Shai-Hulud, indeed...

  20. Seems like a few carefully aimed rocks ought to take care of both the billboards and the city council folks responsible for allowing this to happen - not that I'm advocating beaning any fine, upstanding, intellegent city council folks here.

  21. a 50,000 watt illuminated billboard strikes me as fundamentally different from a conventional billboard. our author is confusing libertarianism with corporatism. has anybody ever tried to rig a small r/c hobby aircraft with an incendiary payload and ram it right into one of these suckaz, and if so, what happened? that's a video i'd click on to watch.

  22. Light pollution seems to be a definite issue here. One that does intrude on people's private property rights unless I'm missing something that Cathy is privy to. Her talk of Mickey dancing on a 5 y/o's wall doesn't seem to cut it when it's a 50 kW sign near your house.

    I used to own some 1000W lights for 'indoor lighting' and those suckers were as bright as the sun. I'm not sure how bright 50 kW can be but I'd guess it is quite blinding. Not quite the same as mine were directional metal halides, but it still can't be pleasant.

  23. Readers of this magazine are supposed to be libertarians, so suck it up. Those companies bought the city officials fair and square; and they should't even have had to do that.

    Libertarianism means never having to say you're sorry. The most I can see arguing for is the installation of a shade which prevest the light from the sign intruding on the neighboring houses.

  24. I wouldn't be surprised if a few paint-filled ballons were lobbed at this intrusive trash.

    And I for one, wouldn't ask anyone to say they are sorry.

  25. I guess a partner will never have to ask, "Lights on or off, honey?" in those neighborhoods. Look at the bright side . . . (boo!)

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