City Wins Ruling on Billboards - Construction of 90-foot towers along I-95 nixed

August 2, 2001
By: Matthew Strozier; Reprinted with Permission by the Stamford Advocate

STAMFORD — In a court ruling with statewide implications, a federal judge has rejected a constitutional challenge to the city’s sign regulations and denied a billboard company the right to construct two 90-foot towers along Interstate 95.

Judge Alan Nevas ruled in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport that the lawsuit of Atlanta-based Granite State Outdoor Advertising was moot because the city amended its sign regulations after the suit was filed.

"Constitutional challenges to statutes are routinely found moot when a statute is amended…" Nevas wrote in his decision, which was filed yesterday.

City and State officials were pleased with the ruling, declaring victory over a company they said is bent on polluting state highways with "grotesque" billboards that pose a threat to public safety.

"It’s a tremendous victory for all of Connecticut," said state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who argued on behalf of the state Department of Transportation. The DOT was a defendant along with the city.

Blumenthal said the decision will be used as a guide for other courts that will hear similar challenges from Granite State or other billboard companies. Orange and Milford also face lawsuits from Granite State.

"The principles reaffirmed resoundingly in this result are profoundly significant for preventing visual blight and threats to safety on our highways," Blumenthal said.

Kevin Shea, a lawyer for Granite State, said he was almost certain the company would appeal. "We are confident that judge was wrong on the law," Shea said.

In June 2000, the city zoning office denied Granite State’s application to build two 672 square foot billboards atop towers along I-95. The billboards were forbidden under former and current regulations.

At 90 feet, the towers would have been almost 10 stories tall, and at 672 square feet, the billboards would have been about the size of a one-bedroom apartment at the new Southwood Square complex in Waterside.

After it was denied last year, Granite State filed a federal lawsuit against Stamford’s regulations, saying the city violated the First Amendment. The company also sought at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and the right to construct the towers immediately.

In May, the city’s Zoning Board passed new sign regulations, which Granite charged was an "11th-hour" attempt to avoid problems with the old regulations.

Granite State claimed in court it had vested property rights to proceed with its suit against the old regulations, but Nevas disagreed, rejecting the company’s case before it went to trial.

To gain vested rights, Nevas said Granite State needed to be in conformance with regulations at the time it filed its lawsuit, which he said the company was not.

Shea said that decision "requires us to be in compliance with an unconstitutional law" which he said is "turning the law on its head."

The battle over billboards along state and federal highways has raged since the passage in the 1960s of the Federal Highway Beautification Act, which sought to bring them under control.

According to Washington, D.C.-based Scenic America, there are 500,000 billboards along the nation’s highways, up from 300,000 when the act was passed in 1965. The organization says only four states are "billboard-free."

Andrew McDonald, city director of legal affairs, said Stamford was Granite State’s first stop in its march across the state.

"It’s gratifying knowing that we are the first municipality that has been able to stop Granite State in its tracks," he said. "They picked on the wrong city."