Civil Liberties

Slipped a Mickey

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


If you happen to be 5, a giant illuminated Mickey Mouse dancing on your bedroom walls would probably be the greatest thing that ever happened to you. But for a grown-up, the discovery that the billboard outside your bedroom window has been replaced by a digital LED sign flashing a rotating cast of Mickeys and Paris Hiltons bright enough to shame the sun might be a little less pleasing. The grumpy adults must have their say, and so the battle is joined in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, where one such digital billboard recently debuted.

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

There are about 11,000 billboards in the Los Angeles area, making it the biggest billboard media market in the country. Under the terms of the agreement, a digital billboard can only go up in place of an existing traditional billboard, which suggests that most of the neighborhoods in question aren't exactly quasi-bucolic Wisteria Lanes.

Still, the new billboards have upset a few citizens. A NIMBY phone call or two later, a small army of politicians—including those who cheerfully collaborated on the compromise two years ago—managed to slap three competing proposals on the table by October 15 to protect defenseless residents of gentrified neighborhoods. At the same time, plans to add new billboard districts in Koreatown and near the 110 Freeway continued unimpeded, as did plans to wrap the Los Angeles Convention Center in illuminated advertisements.

City Council President Eric Garcetti wants to impose a temporary moratorium on billboard upgrades, and he is pushing a plan to use loopholes in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to force all 850 upgradable billboards to go through environmental review. The savvy Garcetti is betting that by advancing under the green flag of truce he can find a way out of the mess he and his fellow city officials created, while simultaneously sucker punching the companies they negotiated with just two years ago. It's not hard to envision the environmental review: "Wait! These illuminated billboards consume electricity?" the board will say in mock surprise. "They emit light? Well, we'll have to look into that." As the folks at the Curbed LA blog bluntly put it: "CEQA can kill anything."

Language about light pollution and power consumption will be a cover for aesthetic complaints, as they often are. Aesthetics are all that's left, since in most cases there aren't even rapacious, lawbreaking corporations to blame: The companies were doing precisely what the city said they were allowed to do. Consistent, reasonable laws about property use make property more valuable. In an audacious double whammy, the city's weaves and dodges have made the property of Silver Lake homeowners and billboard companies less valuable. Impressive.

The company that owns the Silver Lake billboard quickly agreed to dim the offensive ad at night, but this will not stop the threatened environmental reviews. Nor will it stop people from bashing business. Consider the manifesto posted at the base of the Silver Lake billboard: "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 caresnothing about our community." Tacky? Mega-corporations?

Not everyone hates the sign. "I like it," Maria Rodriguez, who has lived across the street from where the billboard now stands for 23 years, told the Los Feliz Ledger. "They should put more interesting topics up there—maybe televise a football game or baseball game. That would be awesome for the neighborhood."

The city of Boston regularly freaks out about its own illuminated billboard, the giant Citgo sign near Fenway (which coincidentally caught fire the same week Silver Lake went up in verbal conflagration over billboards). Someone always wants to take it down or turn it off. High gas prices, feisty Venezuelan dictators, light pollution—you name it, someone has used it as a reason to try to kill the Citgo billboard.

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 at reason.