The city of Corona could gain almost $1 million in a precedent-setting lawsuit over an illegal billboard installed at night without state or local permits, but the legal battle may not be over just yet.
A freeway-facing billboard with ads for Rockefellas and the Pala Casino was the subject of a lengthy tussle that led to a Riverside County Superior Court judge upholding the city’s 2004 ban on new billboards as legal under the U.S. and California constitutions, city officials announced recently.
Corona’s attorneys won the city’s nuisance-abatement lawsuit while fending off counter-suits in state and federal courts from Alex M. Garcia, owner of Corona-based AMG Outdoor Advertising.
Garcia set up a roughly 80-foot-high billboard without permits in the parking lot of Sid’s Carpet Barn at 3035 Palisades Drive, along a frontage road on the south side of the 91 Freeway, in December 2014.
He then affixed 48-by-14-foot ads for Pala Casino and Rockefellas, a bar in Temescal Valley that he owns, said Assistant City Attorney John Higginbotham, who represented Corona in the legal fight.
“It was very prominent. You could see it from over a mile away in both directions,” Higginbotham said.
The judge ruled on the city’s nuisance-abatement case March 6. On May 3, the judge ordered Garcia to pay the city $807,000 in attorney fees, penalties and court costs.
The city ban allowed billboards, or off-site outdoor advertising signs, that were in place when the ban was passed to stay up. The City Council can approve the moving of those grandfathered-in billboards in eminent domain cases – which happened during the 91 Freeway widening – rather than paying compensation.
Corona’s relocation exception for grandfathered billboards has now become case law and can be cited as a precedent throughout California, Higginbotham said.
But Garcia, who along with California Outdoor Equity Partners lost a 2015 lawsuit fighting Los Angeles’ billboard ban, said he was treated “unfairly” by Corona because other companies involved with relocating billboards are making the signs bigger and sometimes digitized, rather than just moving them.
He said he plans to appeal.
“Even though they’ve been awarded a summary judgment, it doesn’t mean that the case is over,” Garcia said.
Los Angeles has also prevailed in its fights against several lawsuits challenging its 2002 ban on new billboards.
Garcia’s case against that city “didn’t go anywhere,” said Dennis Hathaway, past president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight in Los Angeles.
The coalition is part of the “scenic conservation movement” whose goal is to protect the visual environment from being saturated with outdoor advertising.
Billboards are advertising that’s seen not just a few feet away from the property where it’s located, but over long distances that are part of public spaces and thus belong to the public, rather than the billboard industry, Hathaway contends.
“We believe they should not have the right to claim that space for advertising,” he said.
Corona has about 13 grandfathered billboards along the 91 and six to eight smaller ones throughout town.
The city’s lawsuit was also filed against Sid’s Carpet Barn and a limited liability company, the technical property owner, although both are owned by Allan Ziman; and several other Corona property owners who have contracts with Garcia to erect billboards on their property.
Ziman took the billboard down Dec. 3, 2015, after racking up $400,000 in fines. Ziman settled with the city for $158,600, Higginbotham said.