Monday, December 22, 2008

Pittsburgh denies Digital Billboard

Zoning nixes controversial Grant Street billboard
Saturday, December 20, 2008

The electronic billboard that shocked city of Pittsburgh politics this year isn't allowed, according to a split decision from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and likely will lead to a court fight between the city and Louisiana-based sign giant Lamar Advertising.

Lamar's argument that it could trade six vinyl billboards for the right to put one, glowing, 19-foot-by-58-foot sign on the Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown, didn't fly with Zoning Board member Alice Mitinger.

Her 17-page decision released yesterday found that the swap effort -- coupled with a permit received without hearings or votes, and a lease granted without any competition -- "can only be viewed as an effort to circumvent the [zoning] code's prohibition against advertising signs" Downtown.

She also rejected Lamar's request to put a 2.5-foot-by-433-foot "ticker" on the Transportation Center. Both signs are bigger than any ad signs allowed in city code, and Lamar failed to prove that Transportation Center couldn't function without them, she wrote.

Lamar's attorney, Sam Kamin, said he had not seen the decision and could not comment.

Lamar built half of the sign based on a zoning staffer's approval, which was then appealed by five city council members. As part of a court settlement, Lamar agreed to go through normal public process, which included a public hearing. The matter eventually wound up with the ZBA because Lamar needed a zoning variance to put up a sign that large in that location.

Councilman Patrick Dowd who filed the appeal of Lamar's sign permit -- soon joined by four colleagues who later split from him -- said he was "delighted to see that the way that we reviewed the law and studied the matter turned out to be right, at least by the Zoning Board decision.

"I am sure that Lamar will appeal it."

The decision was by the slimmest of margins.

Board Chair Wrenna Watson wrote a two-page dissent, saying that the city had "a fairly well-established custom" of granting electronic billboard permits in return for the removal of a larger number of vinyl billboards. She wrote that the complaints of residents of The Pennsylvanian, an apartment building across the street from the sign site, were unfounded.

"I am empathetic with the other residents, but find that liking the LED board is very subjective and those who don't like LEDs are passionate and speak out," she wrote. Putting the electronic sign between the stately Pennsylvanian and Liberty Center is "an appropriate mix of the beautiful old, historic development with the exciting, new development" the city needs.

She also cited the "unrecoverable expenses by Lamar."

Ms. Mitinger wrote that the millions of dollars Lamar spent on the unique sign don't outweigh its incongruity with the rules, "particularly in the absence of due diligence to comply with the code."

The third board member, David Toal, did not participate because he has done legal work for Lamar. A tie vote "acts as a legal denial" of Lamar's claims, Ms. Watson wrote.

The billboard won an over-the-counter permit from a zoning employee a year ago, without the public hearings and votes typically required for a sign that exceeds size limits. At around the same time, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority gave Lamar a no-bid lease to put the sign on the Transportation Center, without a vote of the authority board.

When the sign plan became public in February, it set off a landslide of events that included lawsuits between Lamar and City Council members, revelations of Christmas gifts from a Lamar executive to then-Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director and parking authority board member Pat Ford, Mr. Ford's resignation from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration and allegation of "corruption," and a legal settlement between the city and Mr. Ford.

"I hope people don't lose the fact that this is the tip of the iceberg," said Councilman William Peduto, who along with Council President Doug Shields, and members Bruce Kraus and Ricky Burgess joined with Mr. Dowd, but then balked at his handling of the appeal. "The battle that the four of us took on was on a much bigger issue of what is happening in city hall: special rights for special friends. And this was just the most blatant."

Mr. Dowd said the key now is whether the city aggressively defends the zoning board's decision when the inevitable court challenge comes.

"Originally, the administration was not willing to enforce this matter," he said. "They were not on the right side of this issue before, and I would hope that they are and stay on the right side of this issue now."

Mr. Ravenstahl's administration had no immediate comment.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.
First published on December 20, 2008 at 12:00 am

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