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Camden mayor vetoes controversial billboard

The 167-foot tall structure would target commuters on the Ben Franklin Bridge.

View of proposed billboard location in Camden. Courtesy Camden Charitable Funding Project.
View of proposed billboard location in Camden. Courtesy Camden Charitable Funding Project.Read moreCamden Charitable Funding Project

Camden Mayor Frank Moran on Monday vetoed a controversial permit that would allow a South Jersey company to build a large digital billboard on the city's waterfront that would target commuters on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Vince Basara, a spokesman for Moran, declined to provide a reason for the action, which reverses the city's zoning board approval of the controversial project.

"His veto is his statement," Basara said. The mayor has veto power under the state's Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act and there had been widespread speculation that Moran would use it.

Moran did not respond to a message seeking comment.

The veto was announced at a zoning board meeting Monday night where the board was scheduled to consider a resolution for the billboard. The board approved the project  by an 8-1 vote at a hotly debated meeting in October and a resolution giving final approval had been on Monday night's agenda. The board took no action because of the mayor's veto.

Board Chairman Robert H. Hamilton Jr. said he was informed only minutes prior to the meeting of the mayor's decision.

"I don't get into it. Politics are killing the country now," he said.

Interstate Outdoor Advertising had sought a variance to build a 167-foot-high structure with two digital screens. The billboard would be built at Elm Street and Delaware Avenue, in an area with a redevelopment plan that prohibits billboards.

Interstate CEO Drew Katz expressed disappointment at Moran's action. The Cherry Hill-based company needed state and city approval for its project.

"It's clear that he is not his own man," Katz said in a statement. "His action makes it even more clear that he has chosen to side with those who receive tax credits and give nothing back to the residents of the city."

Supporters have rallied around plans by Katz to give proceeds from advertising sales, about $200,000 annually, to nonprofit groups in the city. It is believed that the venture would be the first of its kind in the country, with all proceeds from advertising sales annually earmarked for charities.

"To veto the billboard is to vote against the people," former City Councilman Ali Sloan-El said Monday night.

Added Katz: "This is a slap in the face to all of the nonprofits in Camden who struggle every day to find funds to carry out their missions, not to mention survive."

Katz said the project was a way to honor his late father, Lewis Katz,  a Camden native and a co-owner of the Philadelphia Media Group, publisher of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly who died in a plane crash in May 2014.

Some activists and residents have opposed the billboard because of its waterfront location. They believe the size of the structure would mar the skyline and negatively impact the neighborhood and redevelopment.

>>READ MORE: Billboard proposal gets pushback 

After the veto was announced, a few opponents who huddled at the sparsely attending meeting appeared stunned. About 100 people packed last month's meeting.

"I'm not sure what to think," said Betsy Clifford, executive director of Camden Lutheran Housing Inc., which has been a vocal opponent. "I'm sure it will be challenged. I will be there to support the mayor and the administration."

Other opponents, which include the Cooper Grant Neighborhood Association and Concerned Citizens of North Camden, believe the billboard would change the architectural landscape of the waterfront and bring light pollution.

Katz has said he would file a lawsuit if there were a veto. His statement Monday did not mention whether legal action would be considered.

Katz has said the billboard would cost about $800,000 and take about six months to build. The company has obtained a state permit for the project and reached an agreement with F.W. Winter Inc., a metal and alloy manufacturer that owns the land where the billboard would be built, he said.

Last week, the state said it would not revoke a permit it issued six years ago for the billboard. The state agreed to review its decision, as requested by Camden Lutheran Housing, to determine whether billboards are permitted under state and federal regulations.

>>READ MORE: New Jersey Department of Transportation says it will not revoke project permit