Construction firm seeks compromise for I-95 billboard

The owner of a Torresdale-based construction company has offered to donate $54,000 to a local nonprofit civic group if it withdraws its opposition to a proposed digital sign on Interstate 95.

During the monthly meeting of the East Torresdale Civic Association on Nov. 14, the group’s president, Lew Halas, told neighbors that the owner of J.B. Richards Construction offered to pay the ETCA $1,500 monthly over three years as part of a “community benefits agreement” package. In addition, the construction company’s owner, Joe Burns, offered to reduce the size of the proposed sign and to give the civic association access to the sign for public service messages.

Burns made the offer during a private meeting with Halas and ETCA Vice President Bill Kennedy in late October, Halas said. In exchange, the civic group would be expected to drop its legal opposition to the sign. Burns has not returned a telephone message seeking comment.

At last week’s civic meeting, ETCA members postponed a vote on the offer. The ETCA will host a special public meeting to discuss the matter further on Monday, Nov. 28, at 7 p.m., at Liberty Evangelical Free Church, Linden Avenue and Milnor Street.

Earlier this year, J.B. Richards applied to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to erect the double-faced, 1,440-square-foot sign atop a warehouse at 9310 Keystone St. The property overlooks I-95 at the Academy/Linden interchange. L&I referred the application to the Zoning Board of Adjustment because the sign, as proposed, would not conform to city code.

Despite unanimous opposition from the ETCA, the zoning board approved the application in early September. The ETCA has hired an attorney to appeal the zoning board decision in Common Pleas Court. A hearing date for the case has not been set.

Halas noted during last week’s civic association meeting that the application reviewed by the zoning board makes no mention of the digital component of the sign. Yet, during an ETCA meeting in June, a J.B. Richards representative told neighbors that the sign would have LED illumination for up to five different images in rotation on each 18-foot by 40-foot face.

Halas said that neighbors will have to weigh several factors in considering Burns’ offer, including the potential impact of the sign on the local landscape and the likelihood of success for their court appeal.

Neighbors have argued that the sign will shine directly into nearby homes and would cause a distraction for motorists along a busy stretch of highway. One face would point toward northbound traffic and the other toward southbound traffic.

Neighbors are also concerned that the sign would, in effect, become an unregulated billboard. In general, the zoning code does not allow billboards on top of buildings, but the sign as proposed would not be legally classified as a billboard. Rather, the application describes it as an accessory sign, meaning that its content would be restricted to promoting the businesses housed in the building below.

In addition to J.B. Richards, the warehouse is also home to a Union Roofing business and is the office of record for several other businesses affiliated with J.B. Richards.

Neighbors fear that once the sign is installed, they would have a difficult time getting the city to enforce the restrictions on content. So, they say, it could be used as a billboard to promote non-accessory businesses. As an example, Halas cited an accessory sign on top of The Fillmore Philadelphia, an indoor concert venue that opened in Fishtown in 2015. Recent Google Maps images of the sign show ads for Action News, an Italian restaurant, a cheesesteak festival, T-Mobile, a bowling alley, Budweiser and Utz. ••