May 29, 2012
New Lawsuit Challenges San Francisco Billboard Settlement
Most land use profs are familiar with Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego, 453 U.S. 490 (1981), a U.S. Supreme Court case that helped to clarify the extent to which billboards could be regulated under the First Amendment. In the years following Metromedia, several cities have adopted billboard restrictions based on the case's holding, which generally allows for greater restrictions on offsite and commercial signage. Still, despite decades of case law on the subject, billboard regulation remains a relatively risky and controversial endeavor. A new lawsuit against the City of San Francisco is the latest example of cities' ongoing difficulty in restricting billboards.
In 2002, San Francisco voters passed Proposition G--a ballot measure later codified as City Planning Code Section 611 that severely restricts offsite commercial billboards within city limits. Earlier this month, the citizen group "San Francisco Beautiful" filed a complaint alleging that a settlement agreement between an outdoor advertising company and the City of San Francisco violated the provisions of Proposition G. According to local newpaper articles posted here and here, the settlement required Metro Fuel LLC, a billboard company, to remove several large billboards and pay $1.75 million in fines. However, the settlement also effectively forgave more than $5 million in other fines and allowed Metro Fuel to replace its decommissioned billboards with an even greater number of smaller signs.
In a new complaint filed in a California Superior Court, San Francisco Beautiful is alleging that the City's settlement violated Proposition G by allowing an overall increase in billboards. Assuming that Metro Fuel's aggregate square footage of signage is reduced under the settlement, should it matter that the company's actual number of signs is allowed to increase? This may be a worthwhile case for land use profs to follow in the coming months, particularly since most of us will be covering Metromedia in our courses again next year.
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