Camden Mayor Frank Moran is weighing whether to veto a proposal for a controversial billboard in North Camden that was approved by the zoning board late Monday night, despite fears from residents that it would add to the city's blight and obstruct waterfront views.
The billboard, proposed by Cherry Hill-based Interstate Outdoor Advertising in April, would be 167 feet high and target commuters crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge between Philadelphia and New Jersey. Interstate CEO Drew Katz, son of the late philanthropist Lewis Katz, sought a variance because billboards are prohibited at Elm Street and Delaware Avenue, where the billboard would be erected. It was approved 9-1.
City spokesperson Vince Basara said Moran would review the application and its effects on the Coopers Grant neighborhood.
"The Mayor recognizes the decisions of the City's zoning board and will take into account all the facts, including the impact of any redevelopment plans, a review of the meeting minutes, not to mention the effect on the residents living in the immediate impact area, before making a decision or taking any action," Basara said.
Basara did not say when the mayor would reach a decision.
Dozens of North Camden residents and groups packed Monday's meeting, arguing that a billboard at the foot of the bridge would be an eyesore, add to light pollution, and hurt redevelopment along the high-value waterfront.
Proponents of the project praised Drew Katz for his philanthropy in Camden and held that the billboard funds would help local nonprofits with tight budgets expand resources to more residents. Residents divided on the issue used the public comment portion of the seven-hour meeting to direct insults at each other and Drew Katz, and took aim at companies that have received millions in state tax incentives to move to the city.
Katz's father, a co-owner of the Philadelphia Media Network, publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, died in a plane crash in May 2014.
Betsy Clifford, executive director of Camden Lutheran Housing, a group opposed to the project, said that the rift between residents at the meeting was "disheartening" but that testimony from those in struggling communities needed to be addressed.
She said the group continues to oppose the project but will explore options that would benefit all residents while keeping an eyesore out of North Camden. Some alternatives, she said, include a different location for the billboard or the possibility of Interstate donating the profits from one of its existing billboards to Camden organizations.
"We were taken aback by the raw emotion and then the reaction by the zoning board members," Clifford said. "North Camden certainly has its problems … but other neighborhoods are still struggling a lot more."
Waterfront developers opposed the billboard as well, saying that it would block the view of the Philadelphia skyline and hinder plans to revitalize one of the city's greatest assets. Liberty Property Trust, one of the developers opposed, is building American Water's headquarters along the waterfront.
Kevin Sheehan, an attorney representing Liberty Property Trust, declined to comment. On Monday, Sheehan said surrounding neighborhoods would "suffer as a result of this billboard" and its impact on development.
Clifford said the community should anticipate similar issues as the city's master plan is executed.
"With redevelopment on the waterfront, there will be challenges ahead, and we have to expect that," Clifford said.
At Monday's meeting, board attorney Kyle Eingorn drew up a last-minute agreement with Interstate stating that all profits would be donated to Camden charities and that the company must submit its tax returns annually to the city. If the billboard is sold to another company, the agreement states that the profits must continue to be directed to nonprofits in the city.
Donald Sico, spokesperson for Interstate, said there is no timeline for the billboard's construction. Drew Katz previously said it would take eight months to build and cost $800,000. The expected yearly profit is $200,000, all of which he said will go to Camden nonprofits.
The Charitable Fund, which would review grant applications from city nonprofits, has not yet been established, Sico said.
"Last night, we heard sincere and passionate arguments on both sides of the issue," Sico said. "[Katz] is going to continue his outreach to the North Camden community and is available to meet with the mayor to answer any concerns."