billboard.jpgA San Francisco civic group has sued the city in a billboard dispute, claiming that a plan that allows an advertising company to erect more outdoor signs violates a 10-year-old ballot measure that banned new billboards.

San Francisco Beautiful filed the lawsuit against the city in Superior Court on Friday in a bid to enforce Proposition G of 2002.

The voter-approved measure prohibited new outdoor commercial advertising signs on private property in the city, although it provided that an existing sign with a legal permit could be moved to a new location if allowed by current laws and regulations.

“San Francisco voters were clear: ‘No new billboards,'” said San Francisco Beautiful Executive Director Kearstin Krehbiel in a statement on the lawsuit.

The suit challenges a settlement reached this spring in a separate federal lawsuit filed in 2007 by Metro Fuel LLC, a Delaware-based billboard company, against the city.

In the federal case, Metro Fuel challenged the constitutionality of Proposition G. At the time, the company had city permits for 27 large billboards and 17 smaller panel signs measuring 6 feet by 4 feet. It also operated 84 other panel signs that lacked permits and were deemed illegal by the city.

Metro Fuel lost its challenge at the federal trial court level and began an appeal, but this spring agreed to drop the appeal as part of a settlement with the city.

In the pact, the two sides agreed that Metro Fuel could take down its 27 large, legal billboards and replace them with smaller panel signs.

The settlement allows more signs but less square footage of advertising: it provides for up to 125 panel signs to replace the billboards, but limits them to a total of 75 percent of the former billboard advertising space.

Metro Fuel also agreed to remove the 84 signs lacking permits and to pay the city $1.75 million to settle previous alleged fines. The payment will be due when the Planning Department has approved the locations of at least 120 replacement signs.

Last month, Metro Fuel filed applications for 140 replacement signs. (Although the replacements are limited to 125, the settlement allows extra applications because some may not be approved.) The applications are currently pending.

The lawsuit claims the increased number of signs violates Proposition G.

In a second argument, it also contends there should have been an environmental review of the federal lawsuit settlement.

“The public was completely unaware” of the settlement, the lawsuit says.

“Advertising signs create public safety hazards by distracting motorists and pedestrians and…have adverse aesthetic impacts by contributing to blight and clutter,” the suit claims.

The lawsuit asks the court to block any permit approvals until there has been a full environmental impact report on the settlement.

Although the lawsuit doesn’t seek additional financial payments from Metro Fuel to the city, it alleges the fines on the 84 signs lacking permits would have amounted to $7 million.

Krehbiel charged, “Instead of collecting $7 million in fines owed by Metro Fuel, the City has settled to give these law breakers more of what they want–illegal advertising in our neighborhoods. Enough is enough.”

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said the city will respond to the allegations later in court filings.

A lawyer for Metro Fuel was not immediately available for comment.

A hearing on the case has not yet been scheduled.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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