Scenic Philadelphia – aka SCRUB – loses ZBA appeal of permits allowing billboards condemned for I-95 to relocate

The Zoning Board of Adjustment decided Wednesday that three permits allowing Steen Outdoor to relocate billboards set to be torn down for the expansion of I-95 were correctly granted by the Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The relocation permits are the first granted under the I-95 Condemnation Corridor law that city council passed last year.

The appeal was filed by Scenic Philadelphia (formerly called SCRUB), an anti-blight and generally anti-billboard organization. Scenic Philadelphia attorneys Stephanie Kindt and Hal Schirmer’s arguments against the permits included points that the applications did not make the locations of the billboards clear or include any notice of a taking by PennDOT.

The signs all share a 2801 Richmond Street address on the permits, Schirmer said, but none are actually located at that address, he said.

Scenic Philadelphia attorney Kindt says there will be a court appeal

Kindt and Schirmer also argued that the law itself should be overturned. They said it creates spot zoning and a two-tier system where the owners of condemned structures inside the corridor are not subject to the same rules as people who own condemned property outside of it. Elsewhere, Kindt said, owners would have to go through an application process to re-build.

Arguing on behalf of the city, Chief Deputy Solicitor Andrew Ross said the ordinance could not be spot zoning, because it “is neither a spot nor was there any rezoning.”  The law applies to an entire corridor, not one parcel, he said. And no zoning classifications were changed.

City Chief Deputy Solicitor Ross says the right decision was made

To dispute the allegation that the permit applications were not properly filled out, Ross questioned Joseph Flanagan, an L&I supervisor, and the inspector who issued the permit, about the requirements established in the city council ordinance and within the L&I checklist.  Ross asked the issuer if he could tell the locations of the original signs and the proposed new locations from the applications. The L&I employees said they could.

Ross said that the 1801 Richmond Street address listed on the applications is the Conrail site, which all  has the same address, but is an incredibly large parcel.

Kindt said she has tried to find copies of the original permits for the billboards and they don’t exist.  Steen Attorney Leslie Gerstein said that some of the permits are very old, and “L&I sometimes misplaces them.”

While the appeal is against the city, Steen intervened, as did CBS Outdoor and ClearChannel, who were both represented by attorney George Kroculick.

The Scenic Philadelphia legal team was stymied somewhat when ZBA Chairwoman Lynette Brown-Sow decided they could present their case, but could not cross-examine Ross’ witnesses.

Brown-Sow made that decision early in the hearing, after asking Kindt and Schirmer who they were representing.

Kindt said they were representing six Port Richmond residents who live near the billboard sites in question, as well as members of the Scenic America organization who live in the neighborhood. She said their names were all listed in her exhibits, and all had signed documents stating their opposition.
“Why are these people not here?” asked Board Member Samuel E. Staten Jr.

“They all have jobs,” Kindt said.

That was not a good enough reason for the ZBA, and Brown-Sow decided since there were not witnesses for Ross to cross-examine, Kindt could not cross-examine his witnesses.

In an alternate version of the Jeopardy! Rules, Brown-Sow said Kindt would have to raise her concerns in the form of a statement.

The ZBA could not rule on the legality of the ordinance. That is something for a court to decide.

After the hearing, Kroculick said the right decision was made. Scenic Philadelphia pushed city council not to adopt the ordinance, but they did, he said. “This was their attempt, through the back door, to try to get what they couldn’t get from city council through the ZBA,” he said.

Kindt said after the hearing that she will file an appeal of the ZBA’s decision with the Court of Common Pleas, which can consider the legality of the city ordinance.

“I’m disappointed, but it was not unexpected,” she said of the ZBA decision.

The current Condemnation Corridor law applies to land within 200 feet of either side of the I-95 right-of-way, between Arch Street and the south side of Allegheny Avenue. District 6 was excluded at the insistence of former councilwoman Joan Krajewski. But Krajewski’s successor, Bobby Henon, introduced a bill that would add his district to the corridor. Just Tuesday, City Council’s Rules Committee approved that ordinance, which would extend the corridor’s boundaries to Rhawn Street, and sent the ordinance on to full council for a vote.

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