The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

April 3, 2014

Zoners concur with billboard decision

By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer

HERMITAGE — Hermitage Zoning Hearing Board on Wednesday affirmed the city zoning officer’s denial of a Westmoreland County company’s seven applications for advertising billboards.

Zoning officer Nathan Zampogna denied the applications because Mercer Outdoor Advertising LLC wanted to put billboards in commercial zones, which the zoning ordinance does not allow.

The three zoning board members did not comment on their decisions, but they will issue a written opinion within 45 days, from which Mercer can appeal to Mercer County Common Pleas Court.

An appeal seems likely as the company initially filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Pittsburgh, but the federal judge said Mercer needed to give the zoning board a chance to rule before a federal court would consider the arguments.

Company owners Scott and Robert Statler and Kevin Dale attended the hearing but declined to comment on the ruling. Dale said a statement could be issued as early as today.

“Obviously, we’re pleased that our position was upheld,” said City Manager Gary P. Hinkson, who did not attend the hearing, but was informed of the board’s decision.

The board heard three hours and 25 minutes of testimony March 5 and continued the hearing to Wednesday to give both sides a chance to file briefs.

Daniel Statler, the fourth owner of Mercer Outdoor Advertising, testified the company had tentative deals to place six digital billboards on Hermitage Road and one on East State Street at Dutch Lane. Two of the property owners testified in favor of the deals.

Statler argued that the ordinance’s restrictions on billboards hurts local business and landowners, and the city is missing out on tax revenue and billboard fees.

The zoning ordinance only permits billboards in industrial zones, with commissioner approval. The industrial zones are not economically viable for billboards because traffic is too low, Statler said.

In the city’s brief, attorney Brett W. Stedman said Mercer Outdoor has a right not to put up billboards in industrial zones, but “it does not have the right to rewrite a valid ordinance to erect structures in any zoning district that it chooses. Mercer has utterly failed to meet its burden of proof that the city’s ordinance is anything other than perfectly valid under Pennsylvania law.”

The ordinance is valid because “every legal use (is) provided for,” Stedman said.

The city also addressed federal constitutional challenges, arguing federal courts have supported the total ban on billboards, and with testimony that city officials do not consider the potential content of billboards in approving or denying them.