They can be taller than buildings – monuments to brands, products, political campaigns. 

They can also be a sign of hard times for the cities they stand over. 

That’s the case in Westminster, where City Hall’s struggle to gain a more solid financial footing means the billboard forest along Southern California’s I-405 Freeway is set to enlarge by Orange County’s Little Saigon. 

To proponents, the plan to build two new freeway-facing signs is a surefire route to extra cash. 

To critics, it’s an unsightly consequence of local government inaction – one that’s opened up yet another city in SoCal to these towering digital screens.

And yet, to some residents, it’s the tradeoff that must be made for the years-long neglect of their city’s fiscal health, a neglect that once threatened entire divisions of the police department, access to city parks, and things as basic as weed abatement and stray shopping cart removal.

“It’s a give and take, as all things are,” said one resident and City Hall observer, Jessica Losteneau. “I don’t have the luxury of being selective.”

They’ll be the first-ever LED billboards to rise over Westminster, currently home to 29 static billboards along the city’s streets and its portion of the freeway. 

Once built on two city-owned properties, officials hope the new light-up signs will bring anywhere between $63 million and $121 million over the course of 30 years. 

City Council members unanimously approved the plan for the billboards – and a contract with billboard company Branded Cities to build, operate and maintain them – at their June 28 meeting, without much discussion beyond praise for the idea.

Requests for comment from Branded Cities went unreturned as of Friday.

The billboards come at the request of a ‘strategic plan’ for Westminster approved by council members last year, and after a tense council exchange between the dais and City Manager Christine Cordon in May.

When staff first proposed the agreement with Branded Cities, some members of the politically divided City Council stalled, asking for more information about the other proposals the city received.

That drew a sharp and public rebuke from the city manager, already on a tight deadline for finding new revenue sources and balancing the city budget.

“I find this insulting,” Cordon told council members, some of whom painted the picture of non-transparency — and wondered aloud about non-specific conflict of interest concerns — surrounding staff’s recommendation of Branded Cities at the May meeting. 

Other members of the council defended staff’s decision.

But council members got on board over the following weeks, after meeting with city staff in closed session three times since the May meeting about the other proposals the city received for the contract. 

And at the later June 28 meeting, council members selected Branded Cities anyway – over five other proposals – with nothing but praise for city staff during the most recent discussion.

Where proponents say the billboards will bring in extra cash for a cash-strapped city, critics say they’ll further blight a freeway-adjacent community.

One critic: 

A national organization dedicated to fighting the proliferation of billboards on public space. 

“Putting billboards up anywhere is a recipe for blight and ugliness, and it’s going to hurt property values,” said Patrick Frank, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the public space preservation group known as Scenic America. 

“It’s a visual blight. It’s more information about movies and personal injury attorneys, and people don’t want to look at that,” Frank said. 

“Given the choice, people don’t want to look at that.”

Frank said digital billboards distract drivers on the freeways and hurt the environment through their substantial electricity usage – something Frank said is sure to set any city back on its clean energy goals. 

It’s a fight his organization has taken up in the greater Los Angeles area, as well as places like San Jose, upstate, which adopted a total ban on new billboards in 1985, after public criticism about “visual clutter” and “message content,” according to the city website.

“Southern California is already among the worst in the U.S. for billboards,” Frank said. 

In Westminster’s neighboring city, Fountain Valley, City Council members last year approved plans to build two new billboards in town – with one equivalent in height to a nearly eight-story building – in order to bring tens of millions of extra revenue to City Hall. 

In Westminster, both planned billboards would face the 405 Freeway. 

A top concern for residents – historically – has been billboards’ subject matter. 

“A lot of the billboards that we have in Westminster are old and decrepit and host signs of things that are kind of unseemly, like a strip club … the things that you wouldn’t necessarily want to have advertised in your community,” said Losteneau, the resident. “But that’s what’s there.” 

In a Wednesday phone interview, Assistant City Manager Adolfo Ozaeta said City Hall will have “a lot of control and a lot of discretion as to what is going to be displayed.”

The details will be spelled out in an agreement that’s coming back to council members “in the coming months,” and there will be environmental studies, Ozaeta said. 

“But I can tell you that one of the things we liked about the company is their willingness to work with the city, their understanding about the wholesome values that the city has always expressed,” he added.

Ozaeta said he understands the concern about billboard brightness: 

“I believe the term is, ‘Burning your eyes in the morning’ – trying to wake up and drive out of your neighborhood.”

But he argued that “the technology today is light years from where it was before, in such a way that you can control the billboard’s visibility from certain angles” and change its brightness during certain conditions.

“And also the ability to turn it off if there’s nothing to advertise,” Ozaeta said. “We don’t feel that the impact is anywhere near what it used to be before, but there will be an environmental analysis for each of these two locations as it makes its way through the planning process.”

Ozaeta said City Hall staff have “not seen a correlation in our own assessment” between billboards and freeway accidents, and that if there is one, “it’s very, very limited.”

He said the freeway is state-controlled and that the city followed CalTrans’ rules for freeway-facing signs “as far as placement, size, location, all of that.”

On studying potential electricity usage – “We’ve not gotten that far. I think it’ll definitely be a part of the assessment as we move toward working with Southern California Edison to power this.”

Then there’s the concern about what the signs will do to the aesthetics of the community. 

City Hall is in the process of making an inventory of every billboard – and its permit status – in town.

“This year, one billboard was removed as it was discovered that the permit had expired. Others without active permits will be addressed on a case by case basis,” Ozaeta said.

While Losteneau said she hopes the city will “strictly monitor the aesthetics of the billboards, and the impact that will have on the communities that host the billboards,” she also knows “we are functioning at a deficit.”

Now it has her and others thinking about new routes for city revenue they wouldn’t otherwise have supported, like retail cannabis. 

“That’s the reality I have to take as a resident,” she said. “I have to accept a lot of things, in order to keep the city afloat.”

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