Appeals court sides with advertising firm

Billboards are often the subject of controversy, but according to a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruling this week, they are a legal form of communication and cannot totally be banned from a community, a ruling that will allow an Altoona advertising company to move ahead with plans to erect such an “off-premise” sign in Southmont Borough, Cambria County.

A three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania appeals court refused to overturn a ruling by Cambria County Judge David J. Tulowitzki that granted permission to Lamar Advertising of Penn LLC to erect a billboard on the site of a now-closed brewery and pub on 3.9 acres of land along 942 Pine Grove Lane, Southmont.

According to George A. Foster, Lamar’s vice president and general manager, the billboard will display advertisements to motorists traveling on Menoher Boulevard, which is the road that borders the rear of the property, owned by Dino and Rosemary Persio.

Foster, commenting on the ruling, pointed out that once in a while, situations arise in which municipalities write ordinances that in effect ban billboards, even though they represent a “legitimate use” for land.

The Altoona company ran into problems in the Johnstown area when it proposed a billboard for the Pine Grove Lane property, and that led to a long-running controversy.

It began when Lamar submitted a proposal to Southmont Borough and its Zoning Hearing Board in 2012 to install a double-sided billboard, one side bearing a digital LED display and the other a static display. The signs were to be 45.2 feet high.

Hearings were held with Hollidaysburg attorney Nathan Karn called by Lamar as an expert in municipal government issues that involve zoning ordinances. He testified that billboards are considered a legitimate use of a property and therefore cannot be excluded by the municipality.

Southmont Borough Manager and Zoning Officer Richard Wargo stated that billboards were not allowed anywhere in Southmont.

He was concerned that the area in which Lamar wants to erect its billboards is one of heavy traffic, and that there are two schools and a synagogue near the proposed site. He argued that the billboards would distract motorists in the area, causing a danger to school pupils and synagogue users.

Also, several area residents protested Lamar’s plan.

The borough denied the permit for the new billboard, but the Cambria County judge declared Lamar’s proposal to be “reasonable, and not injurious to the public health, safety welfare and morals” of the community.

Southmont decided to appeal to the Commonwealth Court, contending the judge abused his discretion.

The panel, including Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini and Judges Robert Simpson and Patricia A. McCullough, ruled South­mont would have had to show that the Lamar sign would be detrimental to the “health, safety and welfare” of the community to justify its permit refusal.

Southmont did not offer evidence that the signs would distract drivers, constitute traffic hazards or how the signs would harm the area.

Because of the lack of evidence, the court’s opinion concluded that Tulowitzki did not abuse his discretion.

Foster said Lamar intends to move ahead with the proposed project.

“We’re not here to put billboards everywhere. We just want to do business,” he said.

He said he favors responsible regulations. That benefits everybody, but he concluded, “You just can’t say ‘no’ because you don’t like it.”