State Outdoor Advertising Act does not preempt local billboard regulation, appellate court holds

By Jamey Wyman, Best Best & Krieger

Many of California’s roadways are littered with advertising.

A question regarding oversight of roadside billboards, however, has long remained: Does the state have ultimate control or can municipalities weigh in on regulating displays along interstates and highways?

This billboard regulation question was recently answered by a California appellate court ruling that essentially erases the control ambiguity surrounding billboards in unincorporated areas. Municipalities, the court held, may enact regulations more stringent than state rules and can abate billboards in unincorporated areas where large-scale advertisements do not conform to local laws prior to annexation.

The ruling now gives clarity to a city’s role in regulating billboards on unincorporated lands.

The Outdoor Advertising Act regulates advertising displays visible from both interstate and California highways. The law’s enforcement is handled by the California Department of Transportation, which also enforces outdoor advertising requirements mandated under the federal Highway Beautification Act.

Section 5270 of the Act includes a statement of exclusivity regarding advertising displays in unincorporated areas, but also contains several provisions granting both cities and counties the authorization to enact directives on the placement of billboards, impose various restrictions and require permits or licenses for signage in view of any highway.

When the City of Santa Clarita took issue with a non-conforming billboard, Section 5270 came into question. Did the state law preclude application of county or city billboard ordinances?

The billboard in question in the Santa Clarita matter originally conformed to Los Angeles County sign ordinances. Sitting nine feet from State Route 14 — also known as the Antelope Valley Freeway — the billboard was initially erected to advertise a new residential development. The sign was subsequently purchased and leased for general commercial advertising unrelated to on-site home sales.

While the owner obtained a permit from Caltrans, this new use did not conform to County regulations at the time or to Santa Clarita’s regulations after the area was annexed.

As County ordinances read in 1987, signs advertising new subdivisions could be placed without any restrictions on its distance from a street or highway. However, signs advertising businesses, products or services not offered or sold on the property could not be placed within 660 feet of a freeway’s edge, “if the sign was designed to be viewed partially or primarily by persons travelling on the freeway.”

When the area was later annexed by Santa Clarita, the city amended its sign ordinances to prohibit signs within 1000 feet of a highway. The city passed measures in following years prohibiting various signs and eventually called for the removal of off-site signs that were lawfully erected before a certain date.

Owners of the sign along SR 14 were notified in 2007 that the city considered the billboard illegal. After failed attempts to reach a settlement, the city sent a letter in 2014 requiring the sign’s removal by 2019.

The owners argued that the sign’s non-conformance was irrelevant because section 5270 of the Act preempted local regulation of freeway signs due to its exclusivity language. They, too, believed in good faith that the permits obtained by Caltrans were the only permits required.

A trial court granted summary judgment to the city finding that state law in no way preempted the city’s sign regulations. The Second District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s ruling and held that in spite of the exclusivity provision in Section 5270, neither the county nor the city’s billboard regulations were preempted.  

There are a few things city and county officials should take away from the case:

  1. Local billboard regulations can be more restrictive than Outdoor Advertising Act rules.
  2. City regulations can be applied when billboards are annexed. This is subject to amortization and related Constitutional constraints, however.
  3. The legality of a billboard may depend on its conformance to county regulations at the time of its placement.

The vagueness surrounding municipal control of outdoor advertising on annexed lands has been removed. When billboards that have been annexed come up for review, local officials may now answer questions of a sign’s conformance, regulation and removal with certainty.  

[divider] [/divider]

wyman_james-c1Jamey Wyman is an associate in Best Best & Krieger LLP’s Special Districts, Eminent Domain and Environmental & Natural Resources practice groups. Based in Los Angeles, he advises clients on right-of-way acquisition, project delivery and litigation matters. He has extensive experience working on major public infrastructure projects throughout the state. Wyman can be reached at