Billboard rules to be rewritten … again

The zoning law for outdoor advertising signs that was written over the past year will be scrapped and rewritten again, according Councilman Bobby Henon, whose office has taken the lead on getting the legislation passed.  

In an email to PlanPhilly, Henon said that new information about the billboard locations is what made him decide to redraft the bill. He didn’t explain exactly what policies needed to be rethought because of the new information.

“I want to go back to the drawing board because for the first time we have solid data that will enable us to make policy decisions based on something other than instinct and personal preference,” Henon said. “These kinds of policy decisions shouldn’t be made without understanding the real world implications.”  

A bit of context:

·         A non-accessory sign is a sign with content that is unrelated to the activity taking place at its location, as opposed to an accessory sign, which often lets people know what’s going on inside a building. A billboard is the most common example of a non-accessory sign.

·         During the zoning reform process, the Zoning Code Commission decided to delay rewriting the sign controls until after the rest of the code was adopted. That decision was made in part because the existing controls are spread throughout the code, and partly because interested parties in the advertising industry and advocacy groups tend to disagree on many regulatory points.

·         A contingent of the ZCC conducted a few rounds of civic engagement last winter and issued a survey soliciting public attitudes on signs.

·         In the spring, it offered a new sign chapter for the zoning code based on that survey and meetings with interested parties.

·         Council adopted a bill late last year containing the new signs controls for accessory signs only. The legislation had originally contained the new non-accessory sign regulations as well, but Council’s Rules Committee opted to remove them.

“The non-accessory signs portion of that bill was removed due to the fact that the Rules Committee had concerns about some of the key provisions in the bill,” Councilman Henon wrote in an email. “Ultimately, I worked with the Rules Committee to develop a new draft bill, which has not yet been introduced … Now that I have a better understanding of where signs are located, I want to work with Industry, stakeholder groups, the Administration and my Council colleagues to really think about what the law should be and to make decisions based on actual data.”

As of Monday morning, representatives of Scenic Philadelphia, a group that advocates for public space, had not heard about Henon’s plan to start drafting the legislation all over again. Stephanie Kindt, an attorney for Scenic Philadelphia, said that the Planning Commission had done “a great job” drafting many of the provisions of the signage bill, and hopes that Henon’s office will carry over most of that work into the new legislation.

Mary Tracy, Scenic Philadelphia’s director, said the most important issues to be dealt with are automatic conversion of billboards to digital displays and getting rid of illegal billboards. She said that Henon’s office has been receptive to her group’s concerns, and hopes that the new bill will be an improvement.

“It depends on what the new drawing board looks like,” Tracy said. “I’m not sure what the motivation is there.”

A spokeswoman for Clear Channel’s Philadelphia outdoor advertising group did not immediately return a call seeking comment. A Ballard Spahr attorney named on lobbying reports filed by CBS Outdoor had not returned a phone call from PlanPhilly as of Monday afternoon.

Natalie Shieh, a former ZCC staffer who now works in Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger’s office, said the group that worked on the original sign legislation is “a little disappointed” that all of its work may be scrapped, but said she understands Henon’s decision is based on new information and is willing to work with his office to rework the regulations.

Henon said that he may end up using many of the provisions worked out by the Commission, but that he intends to review every piece of the bill. 

A complicated backstory

In 2005, Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Anna Verna passed new sign regulations which included an increase in the billboard license fee: $650 per sign, up from $175. The ordinance required the billboard companies to submit inventories of their signs. Legislation passed around the same time also imposed a 7 percent excise tax on outdoor advertising.

Shortly thereafter, three companies—Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor, and H. A. Steen, whose holdings account for the majority of billboards in the city—organized under the label “Free Speech, LLC” and sued the city for infringing on their First Amendment rights. They also filed for an injunction against the new fee rates, which was first denied by the Court of Common Pleas and then granted by the Commonwealth Court. The companies also filed a state suit against the excise tax.

Early in 2006, the City entered into a settlement agreement with those three companies in order to avoid “protracted and uncertain litigation.” 

Under the terms of the agreement, the City maintains its legal position that the imposition of fees and regulations is not a violation of the First Amendment, and the billboard companies maintain their position that it is. But they agreed not to challenge the fees or the excise tax, at least for the duration of the agreement. The outdoor advertising tax has generated roughly $2.5 million in revenue annually since 2006.

The agreement includes a vastly reduced program of fees, reduced below even than what they’d been before the 2005 ordinance. It required the billboard companies to submit “certified inventories” of the location of all of their billboards. The City agreed to treat all of the signs on the inventories as legal for the length of the agreement, unless complaints brought to its attention individual illegal signs. The billboard companies also agreed to take on the task of removing “eight-sheets,” illegal nuisance signs pasted on buildings across the city, keeping the city from incurring any cost or liability for their removal.

The companies also agreed to remove a series of signs identified on a list of Eliminated Billboards. Henon’s office is checking to see whether all of those signs have been removed. The settlement agreement expires in August of 2014.  

PlanPhilly could not immediately obtain access to Henon’s new data. A Right-to-Know request for information about billboard locations filed with the Department of Licenses and Inspections last August also has not been fulfilled.

Contact the reporter at and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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