Two recent New York cases brought to mind the well-known poem about trees. No, not the one written by Joyce Kilmer. The other one, written by Ogden Nash. Who can ever forget those immortal words. “I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.” Yes, the cases involve billboards and zoning.
But first some history.
One of the first reported cases on municipal regulation of outdoor advertising, People v Wineburgh Advertising Company, 19 NY 126 , involved the regulation of “sky signs” by the City of New York. That regulation limited rooftop signs on private property to 9 feet above the front wall or cornice and prohibited taller signs no matter how securely the signs were affixed to the building. Wineburgh Advertising sought to install a sign on the roof of the 10-story office building located at 27 East 22nd Street in Manhattan. The bottom of the proposed sign was to be 5 feet 6 inches above the roof and soar to 20 feet 6 inches above the roof. It was to be set back 40 to 50 feet from the building line. The City refused to approve the sign on the grounds it was a safety hazard and the legal challenge ensued.
In rejecting the City’s decision and finding it arbitrary and unlawful, the New York Court of Appeals noted that no such height restriction applied to other roof-top structures, such as tanks, towers, chimneys, flagpoles, balustrades, finials or ornamental finishes. The Court determined that the City’s objection to the sky sign was not a safety issue, but rather sought to control the advertising that would be placed on the sign. The building was allowed to install its sky sign.
Now for the two new cases.
In Matter of Skyhigh Murals – Colossal Media, Inc. v Board of Standards and Appeals of the City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 30088(U) [Supreme Court, NY County, January 13, 2017], a 900 square foot hand painted advertising sign was proposed to be located on the side of a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The building is located within a M1-1 manufacturing zoning district. Directly across the street, in a MX-8 Special Mixed Use zoning district, is a residential building. The sign would face this residential building.
First the Department of Buildings, and then the Board of Standards and Appeals (BSA), rejected the application on the grounds the sign violated the City’s Zoning Resolution as it would adjoin a residential zoning district. The Court rejected the argument and castigated the BSA for having “muffed such a simple and obvious statutory interpretation.” According to the BSA, the building was located in “co-designated” residential and mixed use zones. The Court explained that the Zoning Resolution superimposed the MX-8 zoning district on paired M1 and Residential Districts. Thus, it did not matter that the residential building was located in the residential part of the paired districts. It was located in the MX-8 zoning district. The Court permitted the installation of the sign.
The second case comes from upstate and concerns billboards along an interstate highway. In Matter of Expressview Development Inc. v Town of Gates Zoning Board of Appeals, __ AD3d __2017,2017 Slip Op 00874 [4th Dept. 2017], the zoning provision in question prohibited commercial advertising signs that were not located on the site of the business being advertised. The site in question abutted an interstate highway. It was composed of 6 contiguous vacant parcels that combined into an oddly-shaped site. The site had been acquired back in the mid-1980s and had been approved as an industrial park in 1982. The owner never developed the park and it remained vacant. The site had been on the market for years with little interest.
In 2009, Expressview Development made an offer to purchase the site contingent upon it being able to construct billboards that would be visible from the interstate highway. The prospective purchaser applied for use and area variances to construct the billboards, which were denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals. The board determined that the billboards violated the zoning code restriction as they would be used for advertising of commercial enterprises not operating at the site. The board also found that the proposed billboards would adversely affect the character of the neighborhood and would result in billboard overload as there were already more than enough signs on that stretch of highway.
The Appellate Division agreed with the Zoning Board of Appeals. Wholly unsympathetic to the owner, (the Court referred to the owner as a “careless land buyer”), the Court rejected the property owner’s hardship claim. The Court also noted that the “off-premises” zoning restriction applicable to commercial advertising did not violate free speech rights.