Owners of typical, one-dimensional billboards that must be removed to make way for the expansion of I-95 could replace them with flashier, double-sided electronic billboards under legislation currently pending in City Council.
Zoning Bill No. 100553 would also apply to buildings, parking lots, and other existing uses, allowing owners to rebuild anywhere that is within 350 feet of their former location and 200 feet from either side of the expanded highway right of way without going through the usual zoning permitting process.
That’s regardless of the zoning that exists in the area the displaced property owner choses to relocate to, unless the new site is in a residential district, Planning Commission staffer Paula Brumbelow told commissioners.
“So if you’re going from an industrial district, where billboards are usually more located, you could go to a commercial district without any regulations, as long as you’re the same size,” she said.
The bill, which would amend the city’s zoning code, was introduced to City Council Thursday by First District Councilman Frank DiCicco and referred to the Committee on Rules. According to the text of the bill, the goal is the preservation of jobs and tax revenue.
The widening of the highway will result in the condemnation of “many properties abutting I-95,” and that could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs. The city doesn’t want to – and can’t afford to – lose those jobs and related taxes, and so the bill is proposed to “encourage and aid in the continuation of business or other uses with minimal dislocation or interruption.”
Under the city charter, the planning commission has 30 days from introduction to vote on the legislation and report back to Council. But Monday, the commission voted unanimously, based on staff recommendation, to request an additional 45 days for the review. The legislation applied to too many properties and too big an area, and was too complicated, for an immediate decision, Brumbelow said. And without an extension, Planning Commission Executive Director Alan Jastrzab said, the standard 30-day review period would elapse before the next PCPC meeting.
If the bill is eventually adopted, it would create an I-95 Condemnation Corridor. The Corridor would stretch the entire length of I-95 in the city, and also include all arterial streets, collector streets and ramps within that area. Its width would be set at 200 feet from both of PennDOT’s rights of way, on both sides of the post-expansion road, Brumbelow said during her presentation.
“Let me make sure I understood it,” said commission Vice Chair Joe Syrnick. “You’ve got a corridor that’s 400 plus feet wide. Are we saying that anybody who is condemned by I-95 can relocate within that 400 feet corridor without going through all the normal motions?”
“That’s exactly right,” Brumbelow said. “Even though they will have received compensation for their taking.
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While PCPC staff said they needed more time to review the proposal, attorney Stacey Graham, legislative council to at-large City Councilman Bill Green, told the board that she had studied the proposal. Graham, who formerly worked for the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight, aka, SCRUB, waited until the end of a three-hour meeting to warn the PCPC about what she saw as pitfalls.
Graham said that in addition to the implications for city residents and planners, there is a legal question that needs to be addressed as well: Can the city offer this sort of accommodation when the business owners have already received state money to compensate for the taking of their property?
“My legal analysis showed that any existing non-conforming structure, billboard, anything, would be allowed” so long as it was built at the same size as the original. That means that even if a billboard or building does not meet current zoning code, but has been grandfathered in or granted a variance, it and it’s non-conforming use could go elsewhere.
“It’s an opportunity to get paid (by the state for the taking of the property), and then continue to have the use,” she said.
“That’s what it sounded like to me,” Greenberger told her. “Thank you for that clarification.”
After the meeting, Graham spoke of her concern that a replacement billboard could be identical in size to the original, but have a very different impact on the community, depending on lights, electronics, and other features.
There are some additional restrictions set on relocation under the proposed ordinance. Some of them raised more questions for planning commission staff.
The new, relocated use or structure cannot exceed the size, height or square footage of the one it is replacing.
Only those owners with currently permitted structures at the time of condemnation can submit an application for relocation. But the staff wants to know exactly what such an application would consist of.
The proposed condition that raised the most questions Monday afternoon was this: “The distance between the relocated structure and/or use and a residential property located within a residentially zoned district will not be closer than as existed prior to the relocation, provided that the residential property is 400 or more feet away.”
Commissioner Nancy Rogo Trainer had a hypothetical question about that one. If a billboard or building was originally within, say, 100 feet of a residential property, and she owned a residential property within the I-95 condemnation corridor, would the legislation allow the billboard or building to relocate within 100 feet of her house, based on the fact that it had been that close in the past?
“I think that’s what this is saying,” Greenberger said. Brumbelow thought so, too, but said this was an example of why the commission staff needed the extra time.
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