Attorneys for Pittsburgh and Lamar Advertising bicker over Mt. Washington billboard
Pittsburgh argued Thursday that Lamar Advertising has operated a “blatantly illegal” sign atop Mt. Washington for going on three years, but Lamar contends the city is violating its due process, property and free speech rights by blocking attempts to modernize the landmark billboard.
Attorneys for both sides appeared before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Pittsburgh’s appeal of a 2018 Allegheny County Court ruling that the city Zoning Board of Adjustment erred in ordering Lamar to remove the sign that has existed for 90 years. Judges could take up to several months before issuing a decision.
Lawrence H. Baumiller, an assistant city solicitor, said Lamar in 2016 illegally replaced a neon sign with a vinyl sign in vollation of zoning regulations. The sign is currently an advertisement for Sprint.
“Under the zoning ordinance itself it explicitly states that a non-electronic sign cannot replace an electronic sign and vice versa without the explicit provisions of the zoning ordinances being met, and in this case this is a zoning district that’s called Grandview Public Realm,” Baumiller said. “Advertising signs are not permitted. The original sign was there simply because it was put there before the zoning ordinance was even in effect.”
He also argued that advertising space on the new sign, measuring 7,200 square feet, is nearly 10 times larger what the city permits on any billboard.
Downtown attorney Jonathan Kamin, who represents Lamar, said the company spent years meeting with the city, community groups and other stakeholders to come up with a plan for updating the electronic sign and spent more than $1 million on engineers and other costs as part of that effort.
He said the company was planning to spent $7 million on upgrades and gave the city a $72,000 check for a permit to do the work, but the city “sat on it” for years. He said the city has never cashed the check.
“Once it became clear to us that we could not go ahead and modernize the sign as we requested we went ahead and put up a vinyl advertisement on it,” Kamin said. “What we were cited for, and the only thing in front of the zoning board, was that we needed a permit to put up that vinyl sign.”
Through the whole process, Kamin said, the city has violated Lamar’s constitutional rights.
“What the zoning board did was outrageous,” he said. “It went ahead and eviscerated 90 years of property rights, saying that we had abandoned the sign by somehow putting content on the sign.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.