A report authored by University of Pennsylvania graduate student Sarah G. Richards and released Wednesday by Scenic Philadelphia, the group formerly known as SCRUB, says that Philadelphia has failed to enforce its regulations for non-accessory outdoor advertising, resulting in violations of the Federal Highway Beautification Act and local zoning laws.
The report, which includes an inventory of billboards in Philadelphia, calls for a federal audit of the permits and licenses issued to the signs’ owners. If cities or states are found to be in violation of the Highway Beautification Act, they may lose 10 percent of federal highway funding.
Among the findings of the report:
· Only 32 out of 183 outdoor advertising sign structures examined in the study were found to be permitted and in compliance with all local, state, and federal regulations
· 49 percent of billboards examined had no permit, and another 15 percent had questionable permits, which appeared to the author “to be revoked, expired, or inconsistent with sign(s) located on parcel”
· An inspector for the Department of Licenses and Inspections could not find permits for 89 signs brought to L&I’s attention by the author
· 36 percent of signs examined were within 500 feet of other outdoor signs, in violation of the Highway Beautification Act
· 13 percent of signs were more than 25 feet above the roadway, in violation of local zoning regulations.
Richards performed the study during a summer internship at Scenic Philadelphia under a grant from the Fels Fund. She focused on billboards along Interstates 95, 76, and 676, using various methods. Richards said that in order to find permits for some signs, she had to enter a long series of estimated addresses into an L&I database, by trial and error. She measured the proximity of billboards along the highway by using the Ruler tool on Google Earth.
The study was intended to update a similar one performed by PennDOT in 2006. That year, the Law Department also entered into a settlement with billboard companies and an entity called “Free Speech, LLC,” in which it agreed to treat as legal any signs submitted by the billboard companies on a “Certified Inventory.” The City maintained the right to take action against any signs it found to be illegal through complaints. The agreement also lowered the cost of a license for each sign face to $50 over the course of the effective period.
In exchange, the billboard companies agreed to submit to the city certified inventories of their outdoor signs, with the understanding that signs either missing from or not matching the description of those on the certified inventory would be subject to enforcement.
Read the settlement agreement here.
For more than six months, PlanPhilly has been trying to obtain an inventory of outdoor non-accessory sign structures from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, beginning with a formal right-to-know request submitted last August. The Department never fulfilled the request, and several months later, L&I spokeswoman Maura Kennedy suggested that the agency did not have an updated inventory of signs, permits, and licenses. More recent emails to L&I requesting billboard data have gone unanswered.
Representatives of L&I and the Law Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. Andrew Ross at the Law Dept., who was involved in the 2006 agreement, said he needed some more information from folks at L&I before responding to the findings of the report.
Scenic Philadelphia director Mary Tracy was the one to issue the call for a federal audit of the city’s sign regulations enforcement, said Sarah Richards. Tracy said the goal of a federal audit is not to lose money for the city but to bring non-compliant signs into compliance.
“You’re supposed to monitor this law,” Tracy said. “You’re supposed to control this law, and you just haven’t done it.”
Richards’ report cites other studies completed recently which show that billboards have a depressing effect on nearby residential property values, and that billboards use up to 15 times more energy per day than residential homes.
A few weeks ago, a federal court ruled that municipalities have the right to regulate, impose fees, or ban outdoor advertisements outright, despite the free speech claims of billboard companies.
Last month, Mayor Michael Nutter vetoed a bill sponsored by Councilman Mark Squilla that would have permitted a massive digital billboard on the side of the Electric Factory at 7th and Callowhill streets. In his letter explaining the veto, Nutter cited the potential violation of Highway Beautification Act regulations. Squilla opted not to bring the bill for a veto override vote.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, and other publications. He covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.