Updated: Feb 7, 2022
Photo by Caitlin Spitzer
The hotly disputed digital signs scattered across Robinson were recently discovered to have been funded by a private company.
By Jamie Wiggan
A lease agreement made public through a legal challenge against six Robinson Township-branded LED “welcome signs” reveals they were initiated and paid for by a third-party company.
Under the terms of the August 2020 contract, PTM Advertising of Wexford transferred ownership of the signs to the township after paying more than $1 million in construction costs. In return, PTM collects 91% of the generated advertising revenue.
The company also chose the site locations and now oversees all advertising content, according to the contract.
Industry competitor Lamar Advertising claims these terms demonstrate the township inappropriately approved the signage under the guise of official government signs, which require minimal public process. On the other hand, the township’s zoning ordinance places strict regulations around commercial billboards, which can only be built in certain districts after review by the planning commission and a public hearing led by the zoning board.
If the signs were classified as billboards, at least five would not be permitted because they fall within zoning districts that unequivocally prohibit them.
Lamar contends the township’s agreement with PTM places it at a competitive disadvantage because Lamar has to adhere to the more restrictive rules for commercial billboards. Two residents joined with Lamar on the lawsuit claim they were deprived of their right to offer feedback on the signage proposals, as would be required for regular billboard applications.
“The actions taken by the Robinson Board of Commissioners [in approving lease agreement for governmental signs] was nothing more than subterfuge,” according to a brief filed Jan. 14 by lawyers acting for Lamar and two residents represented in the suit. “Robinson’s true goal and the intended result of its action, was to enter in a commercial lease agreement… for the construction, erection, maintenance and leasing of commercial billboards and to circumvent the conditional use process.”
In addition to the commercial nature of the contract agreement, Lamar also points to a promotional letter released under township letterhead referencing the signs as billboards, as well as several permit applications filed expressly for commercial billboards. It also alleges the signs don’t include, ‘traffic direction, or the designation of or direction to any school, hospital site or any public service property or facility,” per the ordinance definition for government signs.
While acknowledging the township displays some messaging on each of the rotating LED signs, it notes close to 90% is dedicated to external advertising. And the fact that PTM initiated the project and chose locations suggest the township was not responding to a public need, Lamar’s lawyers allege.
When approving the contracts during a August 2020 public meeting, commissioners referred to welcome signs – a category absent from the township zoning ordinance. However, In court filings defending its position, the township maintains the signs qualify legally as government signs.
“Clearly, the existence of these signs alert motorists and pedestrians that they have arrived at facilities that provide some sort of public service or municipal owned property,” a brief filed by township lawyers Jan. 14 claims.
The township ultimately asserts it is best positioned to interpret its own ordinances, and therefore a negative ruling would mean the court improperly “substitut[ing] its judgment for that of the judgment of the Board of Commissioners.” Similarly, township filings point to other case law demonstrating municipalities are to “receive deference” in local zoning matters.
The township also highlighted internal memos from Township Solicitor Jack Cambest to the board of commissioners detailing the legal questions in play. In the memos, Cambest acknowledges potential legal pitfalls but ultimately stated the terms set out in the lease agreement would keep the township above board.
According to the Jan. 14 brief, these memos show “the decision by the Township to enter into an Agreement with PTM Advertising… was well reasoned and more significantly was not in violation of any statute or ordinance and within the authority of the Board of Commissioners.”
More than a year after the suit was first filed, both parties have agreed to a list of stipulated facts and have submitted their final supporting briefs. Next, they will argue their cases before Common Pleas Judge Joseph James on Feb. 9.
The outcome of a separate lawsuit filed by Lamar in federal court, will likely hinge on the ruling. Lamar is requested the billboards be decommissioned within 30 days of the ruling.