Despite opposition, plans for billboard move forward

The Zoning Board of Adjustment’s opinion on plans for a new digital sign along Interstate 95 has members of the East Torresdale Civic Association seeing stars.

On June 13, 18 ETCA members voted unanimously to oppose the installation of the 1,400-square-foot sign, which would be installed on the roof of a warehouse just north of the Academy-Linden interchange near milepost 32. But seven weeks later, the ZBA approved the installation anyway, despite its nonconformities with the city’s zoning code. Four of the board’s five members voted to grant the applicant, J.B. Richards Construction, a zoning variance for the sign. A fifth board member did not attend the Aug. 3 ZBA hearing.

“I’m floored by this,” ETCA President Lew Halas told neighbors during the civic group’s latest meeting on Aug. 8.

During the public ZBA hearing, Halas asked to read a three-page letter in which the ETCA outlined the reasons for its opposition, but the ZBA did not permit him to read it, Halas said. The board accepted a printed copy of the letter for the record. When Halas attempted to offer additional testimony, the board further cut him short, Halas said.

Halas said he still doesn’t understand why the ZBA didn’t hear him out and why it approved the sign, which, the civic leader argues, will look more like a full-fledged billboard. He doesn’t recall hearing an explanation from the ZBA. Chris Creelman, the staff director for City Councilman Bobby Henon, said that a J.B. Richards representative asked Henon in advance to endorse the project, but Henon did not due to neighbors’ opposition.

The billboard would be installed in the roof of 9310 Keystone St. J.B. Richards owns the 1,900-square-foot warehouse. The rear of the property abuts I-95. The site already has a painted “Union Roofing” display that occupies an entire ground level wall of the warehouse and is visible from the highway. The new rooftop billboard would have two illuminated faces each measuring 18-by-40 feet. The signs would feature digital images that could change every 30 seconds. One image would face northbound highway traffic and the other southbound traffic. There are already seven double-sided static (non-digital) billboards within one-quarter mile of the location.

The ETCA has raised several issues with the plan.

Table 14–904(1)(f) of the zoning code prohibits the erection of rooftop signs on properties with an “I-2” industrial zoning designation. Also, Table 14–904.1 of the zoning code regarding “accessory signage” limits the size of accessory signs in permitted zoning districts based on the size of the property. In this case, the maximum would be about 702 square feet.

An accessory sign differs from a billboard in that accessory signs must be related to the existing business activity in the property. Therefore, a McDonald’s sign on a McDonald’s restaurant is an accessory sign. A McDonald’s sign on a pole along the side of a road is a billboard.

Digital signs are further restricted in the zoning code. Section 14–904(1)(b) states that digital displays are prohibited within 200 feet of an intersection of two or more streets. The Keystone Street site is 30 feet from the intersection of Arendell Avenue. Digital accessory signs are also prohibited within 300 feet of a residential property if the sign faces the home. Digital billboards are prohibited within 1,000 feet of homes.

But in East Torresdale, there is a home within 290 feet of the proposed sign and many others within 1,000 feet. Twenty-three of those neighbors signed a petition in opposition to the sign proposal. Halas submitted the signatures to the zoning board.

In presentations to the civic association and the zoning board, a J.B. Richards representative stated that the signs would be used only to promote the businesses occupying the warehouse below. The building has two units. Union Roofing occupies one. J.B. Richards uses the other as the mailing address for several affiliated companies that do business elsewhere in the city. As long as the messages don’t feature outside businesses, the signs would be considered accessory to the warehouse below.

Halas and other neighbors are concerned that without diligent enforcement by city inspectors, the owners could begin to sell advertising space on the signs, which would effectively make them illegal billboards.

“The ETCA does not believe that the intent and spirit of the Zoning Code is satisfied by holding a business license and an office address at the sign location, and advertising other services offered at another location,” Halas wrote in his letter to the zoning board.

The ETCA has until Sept. 2 to appeal the ZBA ruling to Common Pleas Court.

In an unrelated topic, ETCA Vice President Bill Kennedy reported that Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell has agreed to be guest speaker at the civic group’s next meeting on Monday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. at Liberty Evangelical Free Church, Linden Avenue and Milnor Street. ••