On the ground in D.C., Maryland and Virginia

DCRA cracking down on illegal billboards

September 17, 2010 - 04:38 PM
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Billboard
Billboards like this one are illegal in D.C., and the city has started issuing $2,000 fines. (Photo: TBD Staff)

Illegal billboards maintained by a California-based company have led a number of small businesses to be fined $2,000 by D.C.'s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

At least three business or building owners were fined by the city last month and forced to remove the signs at their own expense. The billboards had been there for years, in one case as many as five years, but DCRA only moved to have them removed now.

Aim Auto Repair at 6th & Rhode Island NW, S & W Liquors at 9th & P NW, and the owner of the building leased to Logan Circle Liquors at 11th and Rhode Island NW, all received and complied with an order to remove their illegal signs. Bobby Donaldson, owner of B&J Carryout at the corner of 3rd & Rhode Island NW, says he also received a notice from DCRA, but he has not yet removed his sign. He's waiting for the Culver City-based company, Contest Promotions, LLC, that maintains them all, to get back to him.

Neighbors who subscribe to a city beautiful aesthetic may well be pleased to see the signs gone. They generally consisted of a white board tacked on to a wall or fence, with various and changing posters advertising movies or albums pasted directly on to them. Not the loveliest of sights.

In an email to community groups, DCRA Legislative Affairs Specialist Helder Gil described the illegal signs as "blight," and said that the department was working to remove others in the area.

But the business owners who have been stuck with those $2,000 fines argue the rent they received from Contest Promotions helped them make ends meet. Plus, lease agreements between the businesses and the advertising company plainly state that Contest Promotions took responsibility for securing the proper permits, something that DCRA says they never did.

"I didn't know I was breaking the law," says Aim Auto Repair owner Thorn Bun Ngor. "If I had known, I wouldn't have done it."

Ngor's contract with Contest Promotions shows that he was paid $4,200 over the course of each year to host a billboard on the fence that lines the lot of his auto repair business. Based on the terms of the agreement, he's asked Contest Promotions to reimburse him for the fine he paid, but they have yet to do so.

Should Contest Promotions come back to him with the proper permits and ask to reinstall the sign, Ngor says he probably would agree to it. The additional income helped keep his business afloat, he says. But given D.C.'s complex and strict rules regarding billboards and "special signs" (both of which have moratoriums in place) that's unlikely to happen. In D.C., "you can't just get a billboard," as DCRA spokesperson Mike Rupert puts it.

Representatives from Contest Promotions did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

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