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Council approves moratorium on new billboards

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After spending much of March fighting over issues like LED billboards and take-home vehicles, councilors started April in what appeared a cooperative and amicable fashion.

In fact, the unanimous vote on placing a six-month moratorium on the construction of or modification to new or existing billboards went so well, you kept waiting for someone to yell "April Fools!" and start throwing verbal punches again; the tension of the past several weeks has been that bad.

However, passage of the bill was made easier by two changes: The bill makes clear that the moratorium won't affect billboards in areas where they are already allowed, and a provision that would have made the moratorium retroactive to March 12 was removed.

Councilor Jim Motznik, a proponent of the current policy of swapping billboards, said those changes allowed him to support it.

"I've seen the swap work in my district," Motznik said. "I don't think it's a bad plan, it just needs to be in writing."

After Councilor Bruce Kraus first introduced this legislation weeks ago, Lamar Advertising and several other advertising companies applied for a slew of permits to change traditional boards into LEDs in an effort to circumvent the moratorium and any new zoning law.

"If there are going to be swaps [of billboards] it has to be done through this body," Councilor Bill Peduto said. He further asked the companies to withdraw the permit applications put through "in the 23rd hour and obey all laws of the city of Pittsburgh."

Council President Doug Shields said the point of the moratorium was to give council time to write new rules governing the installation of a LED billboard -- a large, electronic sign that allows several rotating messages.

The city has no current law regarding the electronic boards, and the mayor's administration has been relying on a less formal process of swapping out six traditional billboards in exchange for one LED sign, which was initiated during the Murphy administration.

"We don't have a current law on LEDs," Shields said, adding that the moratorium will allow council to "develop cogent zoning codes" regulating them.

The debate started when city officials gave Lamar a permit to put an LED billboard on the Grant Street Transportation Center when construction is completed later this year. Some council members challenged the issuance of the permit, saying it had to be approved by the planning commission and city council. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration contended that a precedent had already been set, arguing that because the city's code is silent on LED billboards, any previous swaps were proper.

Shields said the moratorium would allow council to close the loophole. He says a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth court barred Lamar from "upgrading" 17 traditional billboards to LED signs in Monroeville because the new signs were not the same as the original permitted use.

Shields also says he is hopeful that the issue can be resolved faster than six months "in the interest of commerce."

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