illegal Sign

Indolent Enforcement Allows Illegal Billboards to Dominate

Toronto's landscape is getting a makeover in the wake of the Ontario Superior Court's of Justice recent decision giving the City the right to take down illegal billboards. The announcement came after intense pressure from activist Rami Tabello and his group IllegalSigns.ca.

The fight over illegal signs resulted in the squaring off of IllegalSigns.ca and the 'Out of Home' advertising company Strategic Media. The Court eventually ruled in favor of the City and IllegalSigns.ca, forcing Strategic Media to take down 35 signs. But Strategic Media is far from the only culprit in the illegal signs drama - far from it. Tabello likes to point out that the city is home to hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, illegal signs.

I caught up with Tabello for a better look at the ongoing Illegal Sign drama in Toronto.

According to your research, how many illegal signs are there in Toronto?

What we do at IllegalSigns.ca is fight illegal billboards with the rule of law. About half the billboards in the City of Toronto are illegal. There are probably 1500 billboards in Toronto that are illegal in one way or another.

Toronto's government partly to blame for the problem of illegal signs? Has it been too lax in dealing with perpetrators?

For the past twenty years, the City of Toronto Buildings Department has been the billboard industry's willing enabler. Once a permit for a billboard is issued, the Buildings Department is supposed to inspect the sign to ensure that it complies with the signs by-laws. Virtually every single illegal billboard that we have complained about was, at one point, vetted by the Building Department who ignored the illegal construction. I'm not talking about one or two signs that the Buildings Department screwed up on. I'm talking about something like 1500 illegal billboards that the Department botched their due diligence for.

For example, every one of the 45 billboards along highway 401 is illegal; yet a substantial number of those 45 illegal billboards, probably 40, were inspected by City inspectors before we complained about the signs. The Buildings Department has been knowingly turning a blind eye to illegal construction for two decades. Unfortunately, we are not confident that Chief Building Official Ann Borooah has the courage to face up to the errors that her Department has made.

Aside from improper inspections, billboard permits themselves are often illegally issued. In many cases, the permits issued to billboards in the City required City Council approval, but the Ms. Borooah's Department issued the permits improperly, without City Council approval. For example, in the Former City of Toronto, billboards are required to be separated by a 60 metre radius from each other, yet the Buildings Department has issued tens of permits for billboards to be built within 60 metres of each other, without the required City Council approval. Before IllegalSigns.ca came along, the City of Toronto Buildings Department would not have been able to recognize an illegal billboard if it sat on their lap and cried daddy.

We would estimate that out of the 1500 illegal billboards in the City of Toronto, about 500 have permits that were improperly issued by Ms. Borooah and her predecessors. Most of the rest have properly issued permits that were subsequently inspected improperly.

How does Ann Borooah explain why IllegalSigns.ca has to do her Department's job for it? We have an explanation, and it's a scandal quite frankly.

What are the worst neighborhoods in Toronto for illegal signs?

The worst part of the City is the Former City of York. In York, the by-law is very permissive, you can put a billboard almost anywhere, but it requires a billboard company to remove an existing legal billboard before a new billboard can be built. Unfortunately, Ms. Borooah's Department has been ignoring this requirement, and had been issuing permits to new billboards in York without requiring an existing billboard to be removed.

We would estimate that at this point about 65% of the billboards in the City of York are illegal, and virtually all of the illegal ones in York have permits that were improperly issued by Ms. Borooah and her predecessors.

Are there any media companies particularly prone to putting up illegal signs?

Distinguishing between billboard companies is like sifting lentils. I love them all equally.

What can Torontonians do to help prevent illegal signs from ever getting put up in the first place?

The most effective thing you can do is get involved with the City's Sign By-Law Harmonization process. The City is writing a new by-law to crack down on illegal billboards. In addition, the City is imposing a tax on billboards. Currently the City aims to collect about $16 Million per year through the tax. We strongly support the tax and the harmonization process. You can participate through by visiting the By-Law Harmonization website.

Concerning illegal billboards and advertisements, how does Toronto compare to other cities in Canada and North America? Is this a Toronto problem, or is this happening in cities across North America?

It's happening everywhere billboard companies can get away with it. The worst place for illegal billboards in North America is Los Angeles. You can follow the issue in Los Angeles through the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight's blog.

The economic downturn and its effect on advertising is well known. But is this slowdown in advertising hurting illegal signs? Could this be the silver lining in the ensuing economic storm?

There has never in recent memory been so many blank billboards and expired campaigns still posted. It's a silver lining for media buyers, that's for sure. Media buyers that aren't getting steep discounts off CARD rates on billboard space aren't being wise.


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