Images of the Old West flew like bullets from a six-shooter as a Westmoreland County company asked the Hermitage Zoning Hearing Board to shoot down the city’s zoning ordinance.
The city took on the role of sheriff, with officials saying they are just trying to keep troublemakers out of town.
Mercer Outdoor Advertising, a family company owned by Daniel Statler, his father, his uncle and his cousin-in-law, appealed the city’s denial of seven applications for advertising billboards.
The board heard three hours and 25 minutes of testimony and argument Wednesday. Each side will have two weeks to file written findings of fact and conclusions of law, and a three-member board will reconvene April 2 to vote.
The city is gearing up for a likely appeal.
Mercer Outdoor has tentative deals to place six digital billboards on Hermitage Road and one at East State Street and Dutch Lane.
The city denied the applications because the company wants to erect the billboards in commercial zones, which is not allowed in the zoning ordinance.
The ordinance only permits billboards in industrial zones, with commissioner approval.
Statler, a Grove City College graduate, said the company values do not allow for posting any “vice” representations on its billboards, which rules out cigarette ads and any art with scantily clad models.
He argued his company’s goal is the same as the city’s: to promote local business and civic improvements.
“We believe Hermitage is hurting local business by not allowing billboards,” he said.
The city would benefit by collecting tax revenue and permit fees; would be allowed occasional space for free messages, such as to promote the Hermitage Arts Festival; and the police and fire departments could post motorists alert, such as to reroute traffic around emergency response scenes.
“We’re not trying to turn Hermitage into the Las Vegas strip,” Statler said.
Seven signs is “something that’s reasonable and appropriate for this area,” he said, and promised that, if the company got its way, it would not ask for more.
The industrial areas where billboards are permitted are not “economically viable” for billboards because traffic is too low, Statler said.
Broadway Avenue, the main industrial thoroughfare, gets only 6,000 vehicles a day, while Hermitage Road sees 18,000 to 20,000.
Statler said businesses want the opportunity to advertise on the billboards, and two representatives spoke Wednesday.
Robert B. Berry of Sleepy Hollow Sleep Shop, 405 South Hermitage Road, presented Mercer Outdoor as men in white hats.
“We were really impressed with their family values and the business they run,” he said.
Not only would he get the benefit of the $50,000 easement fee – Mercer Outdoor wants to erect a billboard on his property – but he would advertise on the sign as well.
As a small businessman, Perry said, his on-premise sign blends into all the others in the city’s commercial district. The Mercer Outdoor billboards would be bigger and higher than any of the signs.
“It is hard to stand out,” he said. “They would help us do that.”
Aesthetically, Mercer Outdoor’s single-pole, electronic billboards look much better than the traditional “pretty ugly” wooden billboards, Perry said.
“I’m certainly for this sign,” he said. “I could see that it would benefit Hermitage and the city would benefit.”
Robert Freed of NuChoice Health Partners, 2925 E. State St., spoke along the same lines as Perry.
He noted that his business competes with Sharon Regional Health System and UPMC, the “big boys” as he called them. Anything he can do to get his message out helps his business. Freed said.
“People going to these areas are seeing advertising now,” he said of the city’s commercial district. “It’s not like you’re seeing them in neighborhoods.”
But, argued Brett Stedman, attorney for the city, you would be seeing billboards in neighborhoods if Mercer Outdoor wins the day.
If the city’s billboard provisions are struck down, anyone could put a billboard anywhere he or she wants, said Stedman, who is with Ekker, Kuster, McCall and Epstein.
“The Wild West would ensue,” he said.
Stedman added that Statler’s talk of economic viability is a “red herring.”
“It’s not relevant as far as zoning goes,” he said.
City elected officials enacted the zoning ordinance in 1991, and have amended it more than 50 time since then, said City Director of Planning and Development Marcia A. Hirschmann.
City taxpayers, through their elected officials, decide what zones to create, the permitted uses of the zones and standards such as setbacks, Stedman said.
He also pointed to Statler’s testimony that Mercer Outdoor’s Atlanta attorney, E. Adam Webb, makes his living off billboard litigation, and has dozens of similar lawsuits going across the country.
Webb did not attend the hearing and has not sought permission to practice in Pennsylvania.
“They’re (Mercer Outdoor) trying to circumvent our democratic process here in Hermitage,” Stedman said. “The zoning ordinance as enacted is perfectly legal and perfectly constitutional.”
“We have no intention and no desire to make this the Wild West,” Statler retorted.
While the primary issue was the ordinance’s limitations on billboards, city officials raised several others that pertained to Mercer Outdoor’s applications, with an eye on making a complete record for appeals.
The company also wanted to erect billboards that are 35 feet high, 10 feet higher that the city allows, and of 378 square feet, 238 more than permitted.
“150 square feet is extremely small,” Statler argued.
He also said that a 25-foot height just invites kids with ladders and cans of spray paint.
Two of the Mercer Outdoor’s proposed billboards also would be too close to intersections, Hirschmann said.
Hirschmann, who has worked for the city for 37 years, said the billboards ordinance restrictions try to strike a balance between the needs of business and the desire of citizens “not to be overpowered with advertising and signage.”
It’s common for municipalities to ban billboards in certain zones, she said.