San Francisco Chose Signage Over Voters, Group Says

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco advertising is getting out of hand despite dozens of code violations and millions of dollars in fines, a group says in court, trying to enforce a proposition that banned new billboards.
     Approved in 2002 by San Francisco voters, Proposition G, also called Keeping San Francisco Beautiful by Limiting New Billboards, outlawed any new “general advertising signs,” otherwise known as billboards.
     But one advertiser, Metro Fuel, responded to the law with a 2007 federal complaint against the city and county of San Francisco. Metro said Proposition G violated its free speech rights, and caused it to receive 84 notices of violation for non-permitted signs, along with $7 million in penalties.
     Though city laws prohibit off-site advertising signs, on-site signs are legal, representing an unconstitutional content-based distinction, according to the suit.
     Now a nonprofit called San Francisco Beautiful says that the city dealt with Metro Fuel’s claims in a settlement that did not include an environmental review, in violation of both Proposition G and the California Environmental Quality Act
     “In exchange for removing its non-permitted signs, the settlement allows Metro Fuel to increase the number of its signs in San Francisco by ‘disaggregating’ large billboards and using up to 75% of the square footage in new smaller panel signs,” San Francisco Beautiful claims in a superior court petition.
     The planning commission must still approve smaller signs, and “if at least 120 new signs are approved by the Planning Commission, Metro Fuel must pay $1,750,000 to the City as a final compromised settlement of the litigation and accrued penalties,” the petition states.
     That deal flies in the face of the goals of Proposition G, which said billboards create blight and visual clutter that are adverse to “character and dignity of San Francisco’s distinctive appearance,” according to the petition.
     San Francisco Beautiful claims that exempting the Metro Fuel agreement from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act constitutes an abuse of discretion.
     The agreement also violates the San Francisco planning code and administrative code because it “increases the numbers of permitted general advertising signs in San Francisco and allows unpermitted signs to become permitted and waives the requirements of the codes,” according to the petition. “Consistent with the legislative history provided by Proposition G, city codes confirm that there are already enough general advertising signs in the city and allow relocation of permitted existing signs only to a permitted single new location.”
     San Francisco Beautiful seeks a writ of mandate, alleging violations of state law and city code. It is represented by Susan Brandt-Hawley.

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