City Council’s Committee on Rules amended and approved a bill Tuesday that would overhaul the city’s regulations for non-accessory signs, known commonly as billboards.
The bill was introduced by Councilman Bobby Henon in September, after many months of negotiations between billboard industry representatives, the Planning Commission, and members of Scenic Philadelphia, a group that has fought for tighter billboard regulations since the early 1990s.
Most significantly, the bill would institute a ban on all new billboards within city limits. It would also allow for the by-right conversion of static billboards to digital billboards in certain districts, to be determined through separate ordinances by District Council members.
The bill reduces the buffer between billboards and certain other uses—such as schools, churches, homes, and bridges—from 660 feet to 500 feet. It legalizes all existing billboards, whether they conform to zoning regulations or not. And it would set a new billboard license fee: $315 per sign face per year, with the fee paid every five years.
Duane Morris attorneys George Kroculick and Stephanie Kosta, representing members of the outdoor advertising industry, called the new fee a “640 percent increase” over the current fee.
Kroculick and Kosta, as well as other industry representatives, declined to be interviewed following Tuesday’s hearing, but they presumably calculated the new fee as an increase over the $50 per year the companies must currently pay for each sign face pursuant to a 2006 settlement agreement with the city. That agreement was the result of litigation following City Council’s last attempt to amend the billboard regulations, which included a $650 licensing fee.
Though the settlement agreement, which is set to expire next year, dictates the current fee, the law on the books still requires the annual $650 fee. In that light, the fee in Henon’s bill is a 50 percent reduction. Still, Henon said he will amend the bill before it goes before the full Council to set the fee somewhere between $50 and $315.
While the industry seems to be happy with some aspects of Henon’s bill—Stephanie Kosta praised the “Herculean efforts” of Councilman Henon’s office in trying to drum up a compromise—it is vehemently opposed to the provision which bans any new billboards from being built. Members of the industry have said in the past, however, that under current regulations there is virtually nowhere to build a legal billboard.
“We cannot, will not, and do not support the ban on any new signs,” George Kroculick said during the hearing. "We believe this exclusionary zoning is stifling to the industry, anticompetitive, and would exclude new companies from entering into the market, and therefore object to this concept."
Kroculick and Kosta did not immediately respond to an email asking whether industry members would challenge that provision in court, should it be adopted.
The overhaul has been years in the making. When the city revamped the rest of the zoning code, over a period of five years, the Zoning Code Commission set aside the non-accessory sign regulations, noting that debates about billboards tend to be particularly heated and polarized. The bill, subject to additional amendments, will likely come before the full Council by the end of the year. Henon's office urged Philadelphians who want to weigh in on the bill to contact the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-686-2078.
Note: an early version of this article referred to an amendment limiting the type of existing billboards that the legislation would legalize to those conforming to current zoning regulations. That amendment is not in the bill, which in its current form would legalize all existing billboards.
Jared Brey covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.