City Council advances pro-billboard legislation even after city stripped of authority to regulate highway billboards

Following a contentious hearing, a city council committee approved a trio of bills that would bring one longtime illegal billboard into local code compliance and pave the way for the construction of another new billboard.

The Rules Committee vote comes less than a year after PennDOT, in conjunction with the Federal Highway Administration, revoked the city’s authority to regulate billboards along state and federal roads for failure to enforce federal and state billboard regulations.

Under the terms of the federal Highway Beautification Act, states that are found to be in violation of rules prohibiting billboards along certain roadways can be subject to a 10-percent reduction in their highway funding. PennDOT first revoked City Council’s power to authorize new billboard permits last April, fearing such a stiff federal penalty.

One of three proposed ordinances, introduced by Councilman Bobby Henon, would make one billboard located along I-95 near Unruh Avenue and New State Road compliant with the city’s code regulating billboards. According to Scenic Philadelphia executive director Mary Tracy, this particular billboard has been non-compliant with Philadelphia’s billboard regulations for over 14 years.* The bill would essentially create an exception to the city’s laws on how large and close to residential areas a billboard could be.

The other two bills purport to clear the way for a new digital billboard located on an area along I-95 near Ashburner Street that is currently zoned as active parkland. While the area is zoned parkland, the subsection of parcel in question is little more than a sliver of decaying pavement.

The City Planning Commission testified in opposition to legalizing the currently non-compliant sign, noting that the corner of New State Road and Unruh “already has four outdoor advertising signs,” and that this would “only add to the visual clutter of this area.”

Of course, none of that probably matters, because PennDOT will decide whether the billboard stays or goes.  

The zoning bill does matter, though. Under Pennsylvania’s Outdoor Advertising Control Act, PennDOT considers local zoning compliance when determining whether to issue a billboard permit, said spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt. Therefore, “the ordinance changing the zoning of an area… may have an impact on whether a PennDOT permit is issued.”

PennDOT is currently reviewing almost all of Philadelphia’s billboards along state and federal highways for compliance with state and federal laws. Only those billboards it deems compliant will be allowed a permit. As for the rest, PennDOT seems prepared to order their immediate removal, subject to an appeals process.

Testimony over the billboard bills came towards the end of today’s three hour long Rules Committee meeting. Following the Planning Commission’s civil, staid statement against the bills, a handful of activists took the stand. The committee’s patience, already waning, ran out as opposition antics ramped up. At one point during his remarks against the bills, Michael McGettigan flashed a bright bicycle headlight into Councilman Bill Greenlee’s eyes. A short yelling match ensued. Soon after, the committee voted unanimously in favor of advancing the bills for a full council vote.

*Disclosure: Mary Tracy serves on PlanPhilly’s advisory committee.

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