Civic group turns down offer of $54k to drop opposition

A Northeast Philadelphia civic association has turned down an offer of $54,000 over three years to drop its opposition to a proposed billboard-sized illuminated sign that would overlook Interstate 95 near the Academy Road interchange.

During a special meeting of the East Torresdale Civic Association on Nov. 28, neighbors voted 22–9 not to accept monthly payouts and other non-monetary considerations from the owner of an industrial warehouse at 9310 Keystone St. where the double-faced rooftop sign is planned. As a result of the vote, the civic group will move forward with its appeal of a September decision by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to approve the sign application.

Joe Byrne, who owns the Keystone Street site, and his attorney, Henry M. Clinton, asked neighbors to consider their offer — a “community benefits agreement” — to avert a potentially years-long and costly legal fight.

“I’m not a litigious person. I’d rather give my money to the community civic group than my attorney,” Byrne said. “I’d rather be your partner than your enemy.”

(In a prior article about the zoning case, the Northeast Times misspelled Byrne’s last name.)

During a 90-minute question-and-answer session, neighbors highlighted several of their issues with the proposed sign. Some object to the glare they allege it might cause for residents of nearby homes. Others fear that the illumination and rotating digital messages will be a distraction and potential safety threat to passing highway motorists.

ETCA members further noted that Byrne’s original application filed with the city failed to mention the proposed sign’s LED illumination, while some doubted the ability or will of the city to enforce restrictions on the sign’s content. Yet other meeting-goers questioned why state regulations and permitting protocols for highway billboards haven’t been applied in this case.

The plans call for the sign to sit atop an industrial building that serves as the business headquarters for Byrne’s J.B. Richards Construction company and several rental properties that he owns elsewhere in the city. Byrne rents a separate portion of the partitioned warehouse to Union Roofing Contractors.

The sign itself would have two faces configured in a V formation. One face would point toward southbound traffic and the other toward northbound traffic. Each face would be 18 feet tall and 40 feet wide.

Generally, the city’s zoning code does not allow billboards on top of buildings, but the code does allow accessory signs on buildings in certain zoning districts. An accessory sign differs from a billboard in that it can only be used to promote the business conducted on the property. Meanwhile, the industrial zoning district at 9310 Keystone doesn’t generally allow for rooftop signs of any kind.

The zoning board, in its September ruling, essentially granted the applicant (J.B. Richards) special permission to erect the accessory sign in the dimensions requested. Those dimensions add up to 1,440 square feet of advertising space, which is about double what the code would normally allow for an accessory sign on the Keystone Street property, based on its size, were it not zoned industrial.

Because the sign would technically not be a billboard, state regulations concerning highway billboards may not apply.

During last week’s civic meeting, Byrne and his attorney acknowledged that their original application did not mention that the sign would be illuminated with digital advertisements. However, a zoning consultant working on their behalf explained the LED component to the community during a June 13 civic meeting, they said. Also, the applicant and his attorney testified about the LED during the September zoning board meeting, they said. They subsequently amended the paperwork to include mention of the LED.

In response to complaints about the potential brightness of the sign, Byrne and his attorney claimed that the ambient light would not be powerful enough to reach the closest houses, which are on the opposite side of I-95 from the warehouse site. Byrne offered to work with those neighbors to plant more trees in the area to buffer their homes from the sign.

As for the highway safety issue, Byrne said that internal distractions pose a much greater threat to motorists than billboards.

“Seventy percent of accidents are caused by people looking down, not up,” Byrne said.

In addition to offering to pay the civic association $1,500 monthly over three years with a renewal clause at the expiration of that deal, Byrne said he would be willing to reduce the height of the sign faces from 18 feet to 15 feet. He also offered to allow the civic association to post public service announcements on the sign periodically. But ETCA members passed on the offer.

There is no hearing date for the civic association’s appeal of the zoning board decision in the case. ••