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Key Topic: Zoning Validity Challenges

A sign ordinance limiting signs to twenty five square feet does not unconstitutionally exclude “industry standard” sized billboards.

Exeter Twp. v. Exeter Twp. Zoning Hearing Board, (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006).

After eleven of its sign applications were denied, a billboard company challenged the validity of a township’s Sign Ordinance arguing, among other things, that the size limitation of 25 square feet had the effect of excluding billboard companies, which typically post signs ranging in size from 300 to 672 square feet.  The Zoning Hearing Board agreed and held the Sign Ordinance to be unconstitutional.  The Court of Common Pleas affirmed.

To succeed on a claim of de facto exclusion, the party challenging an ordinance has the burden of proof to show that the ordinance “totally excludes an otherwise legitimate use.”

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed and held, over dissent, that the Sign Ordinance was constitutional.  In support of its decision, the majority cited to the fact that there were conforming signs in the same areas in which the company wished to place its billboards; therefore, “the area governed by the Sign Ordinance is being reasonably used for the purposes permitted.” 

The dissent argued that billboards are more than signs, they are a distinct form of business which must be fairly included within a municipality’s boundaries and, in addition, that billboards are a unique type of sign, analogous to spinning signs or lighted signs, which cannot be excluded as a whole.

The majority disagreed and essentially concluded that industry standards do not necessarily define zoning uses, and that, in this case, billboard-sized signs are not a category of use protected by exclusionary-use principles.  In the words of the majority, municipalities needs not let “industry standards control local conditions.”

 

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