NEW YORK — The city can severely limit the number of billboards placed along its roadways and parks despite its haphazard history of enforcing its billboard placement rules for 70 years, a judge ruled yesterday.
U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty tossed out lawsuits brought by several companies that own hundreds of billboards — some as big as the side of a building — located near highways and parks.
The companies, including Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and Metro Fuel LLC, had argued that the city infringed on their commercial-speech rights by stiffening rules against big billboards and lighted signs while letting smaller signs flourish on lampposts, taxicabs and phone booths.
The city asked that two lawsuits be thrown out because the regulations were necessary to improve traffic safety and aesthetics.
The judge said it was true that the city's enforcement of zoning regulations for signs had been "inconsistent and less than vigorous" since 1940.
The city has long banned commercial billboards if they don't advertise on-premises businesses near major roads. The city plans to limit the location and illumination of the commercial billboards and smaller signs and create strict permit and registration procedures for existing outdoor signs.
Eric Hecker, a lawyer for the sign companies, said an appeal was likely.
"We think he (the judge) ignored the fundamental principle that when it comes to the First Amendment, the city has to follow its own rules," he said.
Clear Channel derives about $10 million annually from operating 236 sign faces in the city. Metro Fuel operates about 440 internally illuminated panel signs, each about 23 square feet, in the city.
The judge wrote that his ruling would force Clear Channel to remove or convert to noncommercial use dozens of large billboards near key highways. He noted that the city would begin enforcing new rules it had notified the industry about beginning in 2001.
"Here, the advertisements on street furniture, lampposts, taxicabs and phone kiosks are a different type of commercial speech and are located in a different manner than the giant billboards controlled by the plaintiffs, which are located to capture roadway eyes," he said. "Not only are the street furniture advertisements significantly smaller than the billboards, but they target a different class of consumer — one who is walking on city streets rather than driving on an arterial highway."
He said the city's allowing the smaller signs was praiseworthy because it sought "to create harmony in an otherwise chaotic streetscape."
City lawyer Sheryl Neufeld said the city was pleased it would be able to begin "minimizing visual clutter, preserving neighborhood character and reducing unnecessary distractions to drivers on its major roadways."
In Los Angeles last week, the local planning commission passed a series of proposals meant to overhaul that city's billboard laws, calling the moves a victory for opponents of visual blight. The proposed ordinance now goes to the City Council for consideration.
Billboard companies there have successfully challenged an earlier ban.