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Residents file appeal against code change

| Friday, May 3, 2002

A group of Franklin Park residents contends borough council improperly changed the municipality's sign ordinance.

James Norris, an attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, Downtown, is among those appealing the change to Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, claiming the borough's planning code wasn't followed when a change to a sign ordinance was approved without advertising or publicly discussing the change.

Norris and his wife, along with 12 other couples, filed last week a notice of appeal, asking a judge to rule that the new sign ordinance is not valid.

Norris and Kathleen Gallagher, also an attorney at Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott and one of the appellants, will represent themselves and the other residents in the matter.

A hearing on the appeal has not been set.

The matter began after borough council voted March 20 to adopt the new sign ordinance, which allows for signs in certain areas of the commercial district near Interstate 79 to be as large as 60 square feet, said borough Manager Ambrose Rocca.

Under the old ordinance, signs in the area could be no more than 25 square feet.

Rocca said the borough properly advertised the new ordinance in local newspapers — which is required by law — and also discussed the changes at a public meeting.

Rocca said borough council intended to allow signs as large as 60 square feet, but when the ordinance was typed up, the size appeared incorrectly as 24 square feet.

He said that when borough officials were notified of the typographical error after the ordinance was adopted, he consulted with the borough solicitor about how to handle the matter. The solicitor said the number could be corrected without re-advertising or re-adopting the ordinance, Rocca said.

Norris and the appellants argue the borough was required to re-advertise the amended ordinance, because by not doing so, the borough violated its own planning code.

They also contend borough council violated the Sunshine Law — which requires certain meetings among borough officials to be open to the public — because it did not publicly vote to approve the amended ordinance.

According to the appeal, Franklin Park resident and appellant Laura Coombs requested a copy of the borough's new sign ordinance two days after it was passed. Coombs also had reviewed the sign ordinance prior to its adoption during the public review and comment period, she said.

Coombs said that both times she reviewed the ordinance, it stated that the maximum sign size could be no larger than 24 square feet.

Then, according to the appeal, several of the residents noticed that the newly opened Franklin Village shopping center at the corner of Route 19 and Brandt School Road appeared to have sign larger than 24 square feet.

When the residents contacted the borough, they were told that there was an error in the original ordinance passed March 20 and that the sign was allowed under the corrected ordinance, according to court papers.

Coombs said she and several other residents are upset not only about the procedural issue, but also about the significant increase in the maximum sign size.

Coombs said she and several other people filing the appeal think signs should be no larger than 30 square feet in size. She said she likely would have stated her objection before the council's vote if she had known that council was intending to adopt a 60-square-foot maximum size.

Norris and Gallagher both said that while the increase in sign size does not bother them, they are concerned that the borough did not publicly discuss the error and re-advertise and re-adopt an amended version the ordinance.

"My concern is that they didn't follow proper procedure in enacting the ordinance," Norris said. "I think they need to do it right."

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