Lawsuit demands end to Grant Street billboard

Group wants city 'eyesore' removed

March 10, 2011 12:00 AM
By Joe Smydo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Tired of waiting, a civic group went to court Wednesday to end a 3-year-old battle over an electronic billboard that critics have labeled illegal and an eyesore.

Scenic Pittsburgh filed suit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, demanding that the city, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and the Lamar billboard company be forced to remove the partially completed billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown. Also named as a defendant was John Jennings, acting chief of the city Bureau of Building Inspection.

Because Lamar months ago lost a legal fight over the billboard, Scenic Pittsburgh said, the sign already should have come down. Yet the suit said the city and Mr. Jennings have taken no action against Lamar or the authority.

"It is time to finally resolve the issue once and for all," Mike Dawida, executive director of Scenic Pittsburgh, said in a statement.

Councilman Patrick Dowd said he welcomed Scenic Pittsburgh's suit to remove "a piece of garbage at an important intersection."

"It has no right to be there," said Mr. Dowd, who called the billboard a "sign of corruption" during his unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2009.

Neither city administrators nor Lamar attorney Sam Kamin could be reached for comment. Parking Authority executive director David Onorato was unaware of Scenic Pittsburgh's suit but said Lamar is responsible for removing the billboard -- and restoring the building facade to its original condition -- if the project cannot be completed.

In 2007, according to the suit, the parking authority and Lamar reached agreement on the construction of a 1,900-square-foot LED billboard and ticker.

The project required two variances, partly because of the ticker's size. Yet a city zoning administrator issued a permit for the project without requiring the authority or Lamar to seek the variances.

In 2008, Mr. Dowd and council members Ricky Burgess, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Doug Shields objected to the project. The city revoked the permit, and Lamar and the parking authority agreed to go through the variance process.

The city's Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected the variance requests. Common Pleas and Commonwealth courts upheld the board's decision, and Lamar did not appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"Accordingly, there is no legal authority for the sign to remain on the site, and its continued presence on the property is illegal," the suit says.

Since the controversy began, the city has proposed comprehensive new regulations for LED billboards. Scenic Pittsburgh welcomed the city's proposal but said it wouldn't be strict enough to prevent a proliferation of brilliantly illuminated signs citywide.