The special meeting, or “post-agenda” session of City Council on the whole Lamar billboard issue, had just gotten underway.
The chairman of the Planning, Zoning and Land Use committee, Ricky Burgess, had given a little preamble. Bill Peduto had been granted the first turn at questions, which would be rotated from right to left. The first group of city officials were brought to the table and introduced for the record.
Peduto was just getting into his questions … did the mayor talk to you about it, no, did Pat Ford talk to you about it, yes … and the gentleman from Beechview decided this would be a good time to interrupt.
So why was Pat Ford not at the table?
Chairman Burgess responded like C-3P0:
“Because at this point, these were the three names that had unanimous consent by members of council. At this point that’s why these three are at the table.”
“I think that later after these three are discussed, I think Pat Ford will have an opportunity to come to the table.”
This would happen a few more times during Act I of the Post Agenda. Right now, complaints about Pat Ford’s absence were only fueling the drama of his entrance.
In the meanwhile, we had to make do with Susan Tymoczko, the Zoning Administrator who approved the permits without votes or hearings; Noor Ismail, the Director of City Planning who is Tymoczko’s boss; and George Specter, City Solicitor (the city’s lead attorney).
Bill Peduto had six or seven different problems with the process:
921.02.A.1 — A nonconforming use may not be enlarged, expanded, or extended.
921.02.A.3 — A nonconforming use shall not be moved.
919.02.N — Nonconforming advertising signs shall not be moved
922.10.B — Alterations to buildings from the approved development plan in excess of $50,000 shall have to go through the re-approval process.
Zoning Administrator Susan Tymoczko easily dispensed with these several concerns. No existing sign or “use” was being made bigger. No existing use or sign or “use” was to move. This was a new sign, on a new building.
So this was not even an alteration to an existing building.
Thus 922.10.B begat 922.10.F:
The procedure for amending an approved Project Development Plan shall be the same as required for a new plan under this section, provided that the Zoning Administrator may approve minor amendments to approved Project Development Plans without the refiling of a new application. Nothing shall preclude the Zoning Administrator from approving minor amendments.
The addition of the sign was considered by Tymoczko to be a minor amendment, despite its great size — and brilliance.
910.01.D.2 also got them into trouble:
These were bad enough. It says that these kind of signs shall be permitted as Conditional Uses. That means they can only go up after they are submitted to the Planning Commission and the Zoning Board for public hearings for approval — and to Council if it wants to get involved.
In other words, people get to bitch. That really is going to be the moral of the story.
Susan Tymoczko said she considered the Lamar LED to be not an electronic message sign that would need to go before the Planning Commission because it was not used for the same purposes as previous Downtown electronic message signs — building identification, artwork and convenience information like time and temperature. This was an advertising sign.
Electronic advertising signs were as yet free to be considered separate and different, she said.
Bill Peduto was taken aback.
He said he found it “very interesting to note” that the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania seemed to have very recently disagreed with this definition of an electronic sign, in a case just concluded in Monroeville.
Tymoczko was quick to point out that the timing was a coincidence.
Mr. Peduto: Here is where it’s not a coincidence. When you spend tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys to find out that you lose because your definition is wrong before the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, and then you go to the City of Pittsburgh the next day and file an application and try to do the same thing all over again.
Mr. Motznik: I don’t think Ms. Tymoczko is representing Lamar here. You don’t have to answer questions on Mr. Lamar’s behalf.
Reverend Burgess: First of all, Point of Order, I think that I do hear, you and the people who are testifying feel free to answer questions that deal with their own knowledge of the issue. she does not know Lamar’s intent. I agree with you on that. She can only state what she knows and her experience. I think the point is well taken.
Score two for Jim Motznik.
Mr. Peduto: I agree too. I just didn’t think that it’s incidental when you lose in Commonwealth Court you know you lost.
Mr. Motznik: I agree. The first three times you said it I’ve agreed, and I’m sure she has too.
That was only Peduto’s second iteration of the subject.
Reverend Burgess: You just want to move on?
Mr. Motznik: That would be nice.
Touchy about the subject.
Peduto had a handful of other gripes. Tymockzo dealt with them. Peduto asked the Planning Director, Noor Ismail, if she knew anything about this situation. Ismail said vaguely that she knew very little, and only from passing conversations. Peduto asked City Solicitor George Specter if he knew anything about what was going on.
Specter said he “heard about the proposal”, was not asked for a legal opinion — and then,
As to these various sections to which you’ve been referring, I would have to agree with Ms. Tymoczko as the two or three sections relating to nonconformity and moving that they are not applicable in this situation, based upon my knowledge of the facts.
Bill asked him if he meant the sign would not be declared an electronic sign, regardless of the case from Monroeville.
Mr. Specter: No; I didn’t say that.
Mr. Peduto: If it is [an electronic sign], then it requires a whole bunch of review.
Mr. Specter: I think the whole story and the background of how this sign came to be there or the approval is going to be unfolding as this hearing goes on. It has a long history going back a number of years as to this policy under three separate mayors and apparently five or six past zoning administrators and, quite frankly, I wasn’t aware of some of those positions or decisions, but it has a history…
… and, quite frankly, I’m still trying to unravel most of it.
LOL. “Most of it.”
But to answer your specific question…
There was no such specific question, but Specter wanted to make these two points:
I don’t think the three to which you referred are applicable here, and I was not asked for an opinion.
Mr. Peduto: There are, just for the record, five sections of the zoning code which are in question. Thank you. That’s all I have at this point.
Reverend Burgess: Thank you, Mr. Peduto. Mr. Shields.
That was pretty much all we heard from Bill Peduto at the post agenda. Some of his questions were inelegantly phrased, he lost his cool a bit with some of the answers he was getting, and he got thrown off by Motznik.
Yet by calling for an official investigation with sworn testimony, and gaining significant support for it, he earned the right to stage this rodeo. You can’t take that away from him. Council was asking questions, and administration officials were providing answers of a sort.
Those answers would tell a story — a story the city’s lead attorney did not feel comfortable getting into at that time.