Thursday, May 23, 2013

Billboard Lease Deal Tabled After Companies Threaten to Sue

By Christina Georgiou

Lamar Advertising's attorney Michael Monsour, right, asks members of
Easton City Council to table voting on a lease agreement with competitor
Adams Outdoor Advertising. Wednesday evening's meeting was held
at the Easton Area Community Center.
 Easton City Council tabled voting on a billboard lease deal with Adams Outdoor Advertising Wednesday evening after two other billboard companies threatened to sue the city if the deal went through without allowing them to also bid on space in the newly designated billboard zone.

Ironically the deal was designed to end an ongoing suit against the city by Adams, which alleged Easton didn't provide adequate zoning for the placement of billboards within city limits.

The zoning code was amended a few years ago to allow a few billboards in designated spaces on the fringes of city boundaries, where the huge signs wouldn't impact residences or mar city views.

One such space was on the edge of Hackett Park, which lies outside city limits, bordering on Wilson Borough and Palmer Township, but is still city property. The space where a billboard might be placed lies along a slope that's unsuitable for park use, and is visible from Route 22.

Attorney Michael Monsour, representing Lamar Advertising, said the deal may violate the park covenant, and that an exclusive agreement with Adams deprives Lamar an equal opportunity to do business in the city.

Abe Atiyeh, left, and Pennsylvania Media
Company attorney Mark Malkames.

Abe Atiyeh, owner of Pennsylvania Media Company, also objected.

"They're goint to make a million dollars a year, and they're only going to give you $30,000. I'll give you $100,000," Atiyeh said. "You're being blackmailed into a deal. I know. I do it all the time. It's Land Development 101."

Atiyeh's attorney, Mark Malkames, also objected, saying the leasable space in the park should go to the highest bidder.

"There's no reason not to competitively bid this," Malkames said. "If this is about revenue, and this is something the city thinks is in its best interests, then bid."

"The City of Easton should get as much money as they can for whatever they decide to install," Monsour said.

"You're going to be sued. It's called contract zoning. It should be bid," Atiyeh added. "If you approve this, I'm going to sue you."

Further complicating the issue, it appears that the placement of the billboard would be in violation of the city parks ordinance unless changes to the law are made. As it stands, advertising in city parks is prohibited, unless it is for the purposes of sponsoring a community activity, such as a baseball team.

Mayor Sal Panto argued that the billboard in Hackett Park would not violate the ordinance because the specific location is on a steep slope at the property's edge and is unsuitable for park activities.

"I don't consider this part of the park," he said.

"But it is part of the park parcel," said Councilwoman El Warner. "I would say if we want to do this, we need to change the parks ordinance or we'll be in violation of our own park regulations."

Representatives from Adams Outdoor Advertising
at Wednesday's Easton City Council meeting.

Adams' attorney, Victor Cavacini urged the city council not to delay the vote, saying the objections of the other two companies were moot.

"We just think that at this point, this is sour grapes," he said. "There is substantial benefit to Hackett Park if this lease is approved."

The $800,000 lease deal with Adams Outdoor Advertising would bring in $30,000 annually for the first three years, $35,000 for years four through 10, $42,000 for years 11 through 15, and $44,000 for years 16 through 20.

The money would be earmarked to pay for park maintenance and improvements, City Administrator Glenn Steckman said.

Council members voted unanimously to table voting on the lease. The matter is expected to come up again at its June 26 meeting, but it's uncertain whether it will be approved in its current form.

Council members Ken Brown and Sandra Vulcano, along with Panto, said they favored it.

"If we don't vote for this, we're being disingenuous (to Adams)," he said.

Mike Fleck said he feels the city should gain as much revenue as possible from any deal.

Warner said she might vote for it if changes were made to the park regulations allowing advertising.

"As long as we're not going to have billboards in every park," she said.

Councilmen Roger Ruggles and Jeff Warren said they were opposed.

Ruggles worried about trees and vegetation that would have to be removed to allow access for the erection and maintenance of a billboard, estimating the space might be as large as an acre, and impacting Wilson borough residents who live across the street.

"It's not so close that I can throw a baseball, but they're close enough," he said.

Warren said the legal ramifications of the deal worried him.

"The reason I voted against the billboard ordinance in the first place is because of this," he said. "It's a mess."

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