Since the 1920s, a large sign has overlooked downtown Pittsburgh from nearby Mount Washington. Mount Washington is well known for its funiculars, the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline. Recently, it has also been known for the controversial sign which has been at the center of an ongoing dispute between the City of Pittsburgh and Lamar, the owner of the sign. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Lamar Advantage GP Company, LLC v. City of Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment, et al., recently resolved the dispute in favor of Lamar.
The sign at issue is a large concrete structure. From the 1930s to 2016, the larger concrete sign structure supported a smaller electronic display. In 2014, Lamar proposed to renovate the sign and filed an application with the City. The City charged an application fee that was calculated based on the square footage of the larger concrete structure, an area that included the smaller electronic display, but then took no action on the application. In 2016, Lamar, without approval from the City, attached a vinyl advertisement to the larger concrete structure that covered the electronic display area.
The City issued a notice of violation and claimed that Lamar violated the Zoning Code by installing the vinyl advertisement. On appeal, the issue was whether Lamar had violated the Zoning Code section that provides that nonconforming signs may not be enlarged, added to, or replaced by another nonconforming sign. The nonconforming status of the sign was not an issue on appeal so the sole question was whether the vinyl advertisement enlarged, added to, or replaced the existing nonconforming sign. The Commonwealth Court found that although the size of the advertising message increased when the new vinyl advertisement was installed, the area of the sign itself, as defined and calculated under the Zoning Code, was not changed or increased.
The appeal to the Supreme Court focused on the narrow issue of whether the Commonwealth Court’s decision was inconsistent with a prior Commonwealth Court case, Lamar v. Monroeville, which involved the replacement of seventeen static billboards with LED billboards that required changes to the sign structures themselves. In the Monroeville case, the Commonwealth Court found that changing the static billboards to LED billboards required substantial structural changes to the existing billboards. But in the Mount Washington case, the Supreme Court found that the addition of the vinyl advertisement did not require any structural changes to the existing concrete sign structure. In fact, the Supreme Court noted that a witness for the City had testified previously that the vinyl advertisement did not replace or enlarge the sign structure. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s decision.
Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance with any land use or development issues and/or if you have any questions regarding this post.