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Billboard signs are displayed on the corner of Parc Ave and Rue Bernard E in Montreal, QC, on Friday, September 27, 2019. Kayle Neis/The Globe and MailKayle Neis/The Globe and Mail

Quebec’s Court of Appeal has ordered three of Canada’s biggest outdoor media companies to demolish dozens of billboards in Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal borough in a ruling that upholds the local government’s power to ban what it considers blights on the urban landscape.

Astral Media, Jim Pattison Industries Ltd. and Outfront Media’s CBS Canada Holdings have six months to comply with the decree and take down about 40 outdoor advertising structures, the court ruled in a split decision released Wednesday. The ruling overturns a lower court’s decision and affirms the legitimacy of a Plateau bylaw stating existing billboards need to be removed.

“Even if the regulation infringes on freedom of expression, it is justified,” Justice Simon Ruel wrote in outlining the reasoning of two of the three judges. “The regulation has an urgent and real objective, that of preventing visual pollution.”

The ruling is the latest development in a long-running war between municipalities and businesses testing the limits on outdoor advertising. In Montreal, the nearly decade-long feud pits the desire of local political leaders to improve the quality of the streetscape for residents against companies who say they have the right to sell advertising space.

This ruling could have broader ramifications for other boroughs in Montreal and jurisdictions across the country, said Sylvain Lanoix, a lawyer for Dunton Rainville who is representing the companies.

“This will clearly have pan Canadian significance” in terms of the interpretation of constitutional rights, Mr. Lanoix said, adding the question is whether a municipal bylaw forcing the removal of billboards constitutes a reasonable limit to freedom of expression. “This is a debate that could come up across Canada in many other municipalities.”

Plateau Mont-Royal leaders say outdoor billboards cheapen the public space while generating little tax revenue. They note several cities and towns in North America and overseas, notably Sao Paulo in Brazil, have enacted similar bans.

“This judgment clearly recognizes that we’re pursuing a legitimate public objective,” said Alex Norris, interim mayor of Plateau Mont-Royal and city councillor for the Jeanne-Mance district. “A borough like Plateau Mont-Royal – rich in history, in heritage, in architecture – has every right to protect and to enhance its landscapes and its public views.”

Montreal’s boroughs have extensive local urban-planning powers, which are delegated to them by the central city. Plateau adopted two bylaws in 2010: one banning any new billboards on its territory and the other requiring existing billboards to be taken down.

The advertising service companies subsequently sued the city of Montreal over the ban and called for it to be rescinded. A Quebec Superior Court judge struck down the billboard law in 2016, saying the legislation violates the advertisers’ right to free expression as spelled out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This latest ruling reverses that outcome.

Justice Ruel said the sign companies failed to prove the Plateau bylaw would be detrimental to freedom of expression, noting that 95 per cent of the content on billboards in the Plateau is commercial advertising. He said in this age of social media and digitization, anyone wanting to direct a message at local residents has numerous other options to reach them. He said the Plateau’s transformation and character as a pedestrian- and cycle-friendly area also has to be considered.

The three sign companies are weighing whether to seek a hearing at the Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Lanoix said. He noted the three appeal court judges who heard the case were not unanimous in their decision.

There is more at stake in this fight than one borough, Mr. Lanoix said. If the court decides that the Plateau has the right to ban new and existing outdoor billboards, other boroughs also have that right, he said.

Similar battles are playing out in several other Canadian locations. The town council of Oakville, Ont., fought for years to keep billboards out of the community, making the same arguments that Plateau’s political leaders are making, but a legal challenge by Vann Media Group resulted in reworked regulations permitting billboards under certain conditions. Courts have had to grapple with this issue in other municipalities as well, law firm Feltmate Delibato Heagle LLP says on its website.

Billboards remain a popular way for advertisers to reach their target audience. In Quebec, indoor and outdoor signs made up roughly 6 per cent of the total $2.5-billion in French-language advertising spending in the province in 2016, according to information provided by the Regroupement de l’industrie de l’affichage extérieur au Québec, a trade group representing outdoor advertising service companies.

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