Lamar: LED signs update not expand conditional use

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Does replacing a regular billboard with one that changes its message every six seconds represent an expansion of a nonconforming use?

That is the question facing Pine supervisors as they consider a request from Lamar Advertising to replace a traditional billboard along Route 19 with an LED -- or light-emitting diode -- sign.

Supervisors heard testimony on the issue at a public hearing Monday. They kept the hearing open to let Lamar present additional information on safety questions and on the amount of light produced by the high-technology signs.

Municipal officials across the region are likely to be receiving similar requests for light-emitting diode signs. In January Lamar launched nine similar signs in Allegheny County, including locations in Ross and Millvale.

Lamar has about 3,900 traditional billboards in southwestern Pennsylvania.

The technology of the billboards is similar to that used by the Jumbotrons in PNC Park and Heinz Field. Those screens show game replays, broadcast pierogi races and show advertising messages during sporting events.

Two years ago, Lamar installed the region's first computerized billboard. It faces northbound traffic traveling on Interstate 279 in Ohio Township and at night, the glow from its changing messages can be seen from more than a mile away.

The sign proposed for Route 19 at Washington Street would be less than half the size of the Ohio Township billboard, Jim Vlasach told Pine Supervisors. Vlasach, who is real estate manager for Lamar Advertising, said the new sign would cost about $200,000.

Solicitor Gary Gushard opened the conditional-use hearing by describing Lamar's request as an extension or expansion of a nonconforming use.

Lamar attorney Robert Kennedy disputed that, saying his client proposed replacing one of three existing billboards on the tract with a single-pole sign of the same size and at the same location. The only difference is that the billboard message would change every six seconds, he said.

State law and township codes allow for modernization of nonconforming uses, Kennedy said.

"This is an emerging trend," he said of the diode signs. "There is no change of use, it's not an expansion and it is not detrimental to the neighborhood."

The new sign would face northbound traffic on Route 19. The land on which the replacement sign would be erected is zoned C-1, for commercial use. Stores, office buildings and restaurants line Route 19 near the location of the sign.

Vlasach also described his company's request as modernization, not expansion. "Our clients are seeking new and exciting ways of advertising," he said.

Conversion to the diode technology was necessary for Lamar to stay competitive. Advertising clients like the new technology, he said.

No one has yet called to complain about the new billboards, he said.

Kennedy screened a two-minute video of other signs along Route 19 in Pine and McCandless. They included moving letters, internal illumination and flashing lights. Lamar's proposed sign would change messages almost instantaneously and be less visually distracting, he said.

Supervisor Frank Spagnolo asked whether the changing messages might disorient drivers who should be paying attention to traffic signals.

PennDOT engineers had found the diode signs did not increase highway dangers, Kennedy said. He agreed to send the supervisors a copy of a letter from the state agency describing its conclusions.

Timothy Harris, who lives nearby on Meadowbrook Avenue, said he also worried that the proposed sign might lead to more rear-end collisions caused by distracted drivers. He also asked how much light the signs would project into the night sky.

Improved technology that has come along since the Interstate 279 sign was erected allows diode illumination to be reduced by 40 percent to 60 percent at night or on cloudy days, Vlasach said.

As part of their decision-making, the supervisors also requested a technical report describing how much light the new sign would produce.

Pennsylvania is unique in the way it regulates nonconforming uses such as billboards, Supervisor Daniel Sporrer said.

In other states, property owners have the right to maintain a nonconforming use for 15 or 20 years after zoning rules are changed. In Pennsylvania, such uses can continue forever, he said.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-0184.


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