BAD BILLBOARDS: Judge rules against Robinson Township for ‘Welcome Signs’
By Jamie Wiggan
A judge has ruled against Robinson Township in a lawsuit challenging the legality of six LED “welcome signs” constructed through an agreement with a private advertising corporation.
A court order issued March 15 states the electronic signage was improperly erected under the guise of government signs, which carry looser zoning restrictions than regular billboards. National advertising giant Lamar filed the suit in December 2020, claiming it was put at a professional disadvantage by the underlying agreement between Robinson and PTM Advertising.
Reaching his conclusion, Common Pleas Judge Joseph James stated PTM’s control over the creation and management of the signs show they do not qualify as government signs.
“PTM maintained control of the township signs from the start,” James’ order states. “This control negates any suggestion that the signs are government signs necessary for government functions, traffic or directions.”
The verdict does not spell out specific remedies, however, Lamar’s lawyer John Smith said he’s confident it will lead to the signs’ removal.
“It’s a win for us,” Smith said. “Our main form of relief is we want all six boards removed...If need be we’re going to ask a court to take them down.”
The initial complaint also requested that Robinson cover Lamar’s legal fees.
A companion suit that was put on hold pending the outcome of the common pleas decision is now expected to move forward. Smith said this case will likely spell out particular remedies.
“Our understanding is [Pennsylvania Western District Judge Robert Colville] wanted to be consistent with Judge Joseph,” he said.
Township representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Documents subpoenaed by Lamar show PTM paid more than $1 million to construct the signs on township property in the fall of 2020. The township did not contribute financially, but draws 9% of advertising revenues and also promotes township services on the rotating signage.
When approving the lease and construction agreements several months prior, commissioners referred to them as “welcome signs” and formally cleared them as “government signs.” While commercial billboards can only be erected in restricted zoning areas and require public hearings with the planning commission and zoning appeals board, government signs can be placed anywhere on township property with permission from the board of commissioners.
Robinson codes specify government signs must convey “traffic direction, or the designation of or direction to any school, hospital site or any public service property or facility.”
The subpoenaed files, as James notes, show PTM selected the locations and manages all advertising content.
“The record establishes that these signs are for-profit signs that advertise services in and outside of the township off the premises where the signs are located,” James wrote.