Billboard Ban in Mount Laurel Upheld by Federal Court

Jan Hefler, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

In a 14-page opinion released this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third District in Philadelphia upheld Mount Laurel’s 2008 billboard ban the township’s stretches of I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Interstate Outdoor Advertising L.P. appealed, saying the ordinance was unconstitutional because it limited free speech and was based on flawed traffic studies.

The court said that the town’s “conclusion that billboards affect traffic safety and aesthetics” was reasonable, and that municipalities have the right to regulate billboards.

Interstate Outdoor, a regional billboard company, had sought permission from the town’s zoning board to erect four billboards along I-295, a six-lane highway, the opinion said. Drew A. Katz, chief executive of Interstate Outdoor, also is a director of Interstate General Media, the company that owns The Inquirer. His father, Lewis Katz, a partner in Interstate General Media, is former chairman of Interstate Outdoor.

Interstate Outdoor presented an expert witness who testified that an analysis of accidents on I-295 revealed it was not a hazardous highway in Mount Laurel. But the court noted that it was possible the “precise reason the accident rate is so low” is the lack of billboards.

The ruling means Mount Laurel “will retain its existing ‘billboard-free’ ” character, said Christopher J. Norman, the township’s special counsel in the case. Only two small billboards appear within the town’s borders because they were erected before the ordinance was adopted.

Norman said “the opinion sets the law on regulating billboards” in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Louis L. D’Arminio, who represented Interstate Outdoor, did not return a call for comment.

The court agreed that the town’s ordinance limited Interstate’s speech but said that was overshadowed by regulatory interests. “Interstate alleges that the complete ban on billboard messages does not allow for alternative channels for communication . . . to the specific target audience of the drivers traveling on I-295,” the court wrote.

But there are many alternative ways to get the message out, including Internet advertising, direct mail, radio, newspapers, and television, the court said.

Commonwealth Court Rules in Favor of Keeping Philadelphia Beautiful

On August 9, 2010, the Court in the case of Callowhill Center Assocs. LLC v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment, 2 A.3d 802 (Pa.Commw. Ct 2010)  ruled against Callowhill Center Associates’ appeal against the Zoning Board for its denial of a variance to erect a mega-sized vinyl advertising wall wrap located in a protected area of the Vine Street Corridor.  For the second time, the building owner appeared before the state court appealing a denial of a variance for the 9,750 square foot sign at 413-53 North 7th Street.

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Victory for Burholme Park: Commonwealth Upholds Orphans’ Court Decision

After months of deliberations, the  Court in the  case of In re Estate of Ryerss, 987 A.2d 1231 (Pa. Commw. Ct. , 2009) denied the City’s request to turn over 19.4 acres of parkland to Fox Chase Cancer Center for its expansion.

The unanimous decision of the seven member panel of judges dismissed the city’s arguments that continuing to use Burholme Park as parkland was not the most beneficial use, and would not best serve the public interest.

The court determined that the language of the law “focuses on whether the original use has ceased to serve the public interest and did not allow for a balancing of benefits.”

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Neighborhood Successfully Defeats Illegal Billboard

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Today, July 24, 2009, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court issued an opinion affirming the decision of the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment which denied a variance request to allow an accessory sign to be converted into a non-accessory outdoor advertising sign.  The Applicant, 1700 Columbus Associates LLC, attempted to circumvent the zoning process by erecting an accessory sign advertising the parking lot for the on-premise business (see above picture) and then tried to argue that the conversion to a non-accessory outdoor advertising sign was a “mere change in the text” on the sign face.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Commonwealth Court were not persuaded by this argument and instead relied upon well-settled caselaw in Pennsylvania that (1) billboards or non-accessory outdoor advertising signs are distinct, separate uses from accessory signs and (2) an unnecessary hardship is required for the granting of a variance from the Philadelphia Zoning Code.  Surprisingly, the trial court Judge Esther Sylvester ignored this precedent and overturned the ZBA’s denial of the variance request, much to the disappointment of all of the neighbors and civic groups who had been following this issue.

This decision is certainly a victory for all of the neighbors who were involved with this zoning issue from the beginning.  Special thanks to Regina & Francis Kelly, Frank Alphonso and the Pennsport Civic Association for their excellent advocacy and for participating before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Scenic Philadelphia and FDR Park v. Zoning Board of Philadelphia — 772 A.2d 1040

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a Court of Common Pleas determination reversing the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment’s order granting Conrail variances to erect  outdoor advertising signs on its property adjacent to Interstate Route I-95 in South Philadelphia.

The primary issue here was whether substantial evidence supported the Board’s findings that Conrail would suffer unnecessary hardship if the variances were denied.

Noting that the burden of proof falls squarely on the party seeking a variance, the Court held that Conrail was unable to show unnecessary hardship because it could not show any unique physical circumstances or conditions justifying the variance.

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Scenic Phila v. Zoning Bd. of Phil: 417 N. 7th St Wall Wrap

Scenic Philadelphia, Mary Crawley Tracy, Old City Civic Association, and Kensington South Neighborhood Advisory Council V. The Zoning Board of Adjustment, the City of Philadelphia, Callowhill Center Associates and Metro Lights, LLC

The Commonwealth Court affirmed a trial court decision reversing the Board’s decision to grant a variance because the applicants did not suffer an undue hardship. Noting that the property would maintain 70 – 80% occupancy without the variance, the Court determined that the fact that the variance would allow the property owner to raise additional funds to pay for needed renovations does not meet the level of undue hardship.

In making this determination, the Court noted relied on the rule that financial hardship alone is not a sufficient basis for granting a variance; a variance will only be granted if they are able to show that property will be rendered valueless. Thus, property owners do not have a right to utilize land for their highest and best financial gain. The loss of rental income from disallowed outdoor advertising signs was not an unnecessary hardship, so the Trial Court was correct in overturning the Board’s decision to grant a variance.

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1200 Byberry — 713 A.2d 135 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1998)

Scenic Philadelphia v. Zoning Board of Adjustment of the City of Philadelphia, The City of Philadelphia and Revere National Corporation

In this case, the Court rejected Applicant’s argument that it suffered undue hardship because its property was not well-suited for industrial use by noting alternative industrial uses for the property.

To reach this goal it examined the elements that a party seeking a variance must prove: (1) that unnecessary hardship will result if the variance is denied, and that the hardship must be unique or peculiar to the property as distinguished from a hardship arising from the impact of zoning regulations on an entire district, and (2) that the proposed use will not be contrary to the public interest. Relying on these rules, it held that a property that was zone for industrial use did not suffer undue hardship when there were economically viable uses for the property.

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200′ West of Schuylkill Expressway — 787 A.2d 1123 (Pa. Commw. 2001)

Scenic Philadelphia, Mary Cawley Tracy, David Cohen, Powelton Village Civic Association, Center City Civic Association and Jack Minnis v. Zoning Board of Adjustment, City of Philadelphia, Amtrak National Railroad Passenger Corp., and Interstate Outdoor Advertising; Appeal of: Amtrak National Railroad Passenger Corp. and Interstate Outdoor Advertising

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