November 2017
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Federal Judge Rejects Challenge to New York City’s Billboard Regulations

The Society has been involved in efforts to establish reasonable controls on billboards and other signage in New York City since the turn of the century. Despite the fact that the City has had signage regulations on the books for years, it has been fighting a losing battle with the outdoor advertising industry. Gargantuan, brightly lit signs have continued to proliferate throughout the city, defacing our streets and sidewalks — particularly noticeably in architecturally significant neighborhoods such as SoHo — and impeding views and creating traffic hazards on arterial highways.

Earlier this year, the City earlier enacted a tough new enforcement mechanism that finally provides City officials with the tools they need to crack down on illegal signs. The Society testified in support of the proposed regulations before the City Planning Commission and City Council. The new enforcement provisions dramatically increase the fines for illegal signs, give the City the ability to remove illegal signs using nuisance proceedings (as opposed to going through the criminal courts), and require sign companies to register with the Department of Buildings and identify all signs in their portfolios. Also enacted were new restrictions on the size of signs in manufacturing districts. The only down side of the new regulations is that they “grandfather” most existing signs that currently have a valid permit from the Department of Buildings, even if they do not comply with the new size restrictions.

Responding to the new stringent regulations and enforcement scheme, one of the city’s largest outdoor advertising companies filed a lawsuit in February against the City. The suit contains a number of constitutional challenges to the signage regulations, specifically the provisions prohibiting commercial signs along arterial highways and portions of the new enforcement mechanism. In June of 2001, the Society filed an amicus brief in support of the City’s signage regulations. The Society’s brief asserts the constitutionality of the regulations and emphasizes the need for municipalities to be able to protect their citizens’ quality of life through reasonable signage controls. The First Amendment does not give the outdoor advertising industry the right to usurp the City’s police power and dictate the appearance and character New York City’s streetscape.

In June of 2001, Infinity Outdoor and the City filed a cross-motions for summary judgment, each party arguing that it should prevail as a matter of law. In her 46-page opinion, Judge Nina Gershon denied Infinity Outdoor’s motion and granted the City’s motion. Judge Gershon’s holding is a significant victory in the Society’s struggle to combat runaway signage. The decision will allow the City to implement its new signage enforcement provisions and to enforce its prohibition of commercial billboards within 200 feet of the city’s arterial highways. The Society plans to press forward on this issue by enlisting its members in an effort to identify illegal signs and monitor the removal of such signs.