Planning Commission asks for more time to consider billboard regulations

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission on Tuesday requested an additional 45 days to consider a bill introduced by Councilman Bobby Henon that would overhaul the city’s zoning regulations for non-accessory signs, known commonly as billboards. Because City Council cannot finally adopt a zoning bill until after the Commission weighs in, the earliest the bill could be adopted is sometime in December.

The bill was the subject of previous PlanPhilly coverage. Among its major changes to the current rules are provisions that would ban the construction of any new billboards, allow for static billboards to be converted to digital billboards by right in certain to-be-determined districts, and reduce the buffer between billboards and certain other uses like parks from 660 feet to 500 feet. For each digital conversion, the sign owner would have to remove two other billboards.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a Committee hearing in City Council, but a few important provisions still need to be ironed out. Most significantly, Council members will need to determine the areas in which billboards can be turned digital by right. None of those decisions have been made.

Additionally, Council will need to set a maximum daytime brightness for digital signs. Henon’s proposal currently caps the brightness of signs at night at 350 nits. Natalie Shieh, who works for Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger and who presented the bill to the Planning Commission, described the measure of luminescence like so: a computer screen may be about 300 nits, a high definition television screen may be about 1,000 nits, and the sun is around 10,000 nits. She said most other cities that allow digital billboards institute a daytime nit-cap around 5,000.

The bill also excludes some overlay controls that are contained in the current billboard regulations, such as restrictions on billboards within 660 feet of bridges and ramps to Interstate 95. While the proposal’s ban on all new billboards would prevent new signs from going in those areas, the removal of the regulation could change the status of some signs from non-conforming to conforming. Non-conforming signs, like other non-conforming uses, are allowed to be maintained but not expanded or replaced.

Mary Tracy, the director of Scenic Philadelphia—formerly known as SCRUB, the Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight—commended Councilman Henon’s office for working hard to put together the new regulations, but said that the current proposal “doesn’t do much for the future of the city.” Tracy and her group have been fighting for stricter billboard controls since the early 1990s.

Tracy said she is in favor of prohibiting all new billboards, but sees the legalization of all existing billboards as a giveaway to the outdoor advertising industry. Tracy pointed out that the city doesn’t get much in tax revenue from the nearly 2,000 billboards within city limits. The city has collected between $2.3 million and $2.8 million a year since 2008 on a seven percent excise tax on outdoor advertising; that is a tax paid by the company that purchases advertising space, not by the owner of the sign. And she spoke against the removal of some of the code’s current overlay controls, particularly around the city’s bridges.

“In 2013,” Tracy asked, “are we dooming our city to mediocrity because we’re allowing these billboards to take control of some of our most scenic vistas?”

Several representatives of outdoor advertising companies attended the Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, but none of them testified. A Committee hearing on Henon’s bill has not yet been scheduled.  

Also on Tuesday, the Planning Commission recommended a bill introduced by Councilman Bill Greenlee on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke that would augment regulations for temporary real estate signs in the neighborhoods surrounding Temple University. Among other regulations, the bill would require that signs advertising vacancies in multi-unit residential buildings be removed within seven days of the building reaching full occupancy.

Though he supported the bill, Commission member Patrick Eiding said it should go further, and regulate such signs across the city, rather than just the Temple area.

“I don’t like to see it piecemeal,” Eiding said. “Either you’re going to fix the city or you’re not going to fix the city.”

The Commission recommended the bill with the proviso that Council look at the issue on a citywide basis as well.

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