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Friday, December 29, 2006

Billboard foes keep them out of sight

By SHARI HOROWITZ
Special to the Times

Burlington residents not sold on ratable

MANSFIELD -- Opponents of an ordinance to erect massive billboards along the highways in this Burlington County community made a last ditch stand this week -- and triumphed.

An ordinance to erect the billboards on Interstate 295 in the Hedding section and along the New Jersey Turnpike was up for a second reading and final vote for adoption. The proposed law, which sparked a huge townshipwide outcry, was defeated by a vote of 3 to 1 with the mayor abstaining due to a conflict of interest.

Over 70 people were present at the meeting, which was standing room only, and more than half of them wore green shirts that said "Mansfield: Preserve our countryside," in protest of the ordinance.

Proponents argued the township needed the additional tax revenues the signs would bring; opponents said they would be a blot on the landscape and detract from the quality of life.

Debate went on for more than two hours between residents, lawyers and township committee members. The ordinance was ultimately withdrawn at the suggestion of township committee member Kenneth Denti. In the vote to withdraw, deputy mayor Laverne Cholewa was the lone dissenting vote.

Mayor Arthur Puglia abstained from the debate and the vote at the request of Stuart Lieberman, a land-use lawyer from Princeton who was hired by those against the ordinance.

He asked the mayor to recuse himself because he had a "relationship" with property owners who would benefit from the ordinance. The ordinance would have allowed four billboards in Mansfield, two in Hedding on Interstate 295 and two on the other side of town by the New Jersey Turnpike. The billboards on Interstate 295 would have been 60 feet high and the ones on the New Jersey Turnpike 90 feet high.

"I'm just so glad; I'm hoping this will put an end to this issue," said township resident Claudia Teal who had protested the billboard ordinance since it was first proposed. Teal said one of the proposed billboards would have been visible from her home.

Those against the billboard ordinance felt that the approximately $12,000 per year generated by the billboards in tax revenue was poor compensation for the unsightliness of the signs and the compromise of the township master plan.

Residents were afraid of light pollution emanating from the billboards at night and the possibility of more billboards being erected since the ordinance permitted billboards to be placed at least every 1,000 feet of highway space.

The residents were also worried that the billboard sizes would exceed the 14-by-48-foot limit specified in the ordinance because certain types of enlargements were permitted.

Township resident Kathleen Potts was concerned that the billboard content would affect her children.

"We can't control what it says on the billboards -- that scares me," Potts said.

Cassandra Bartsack, another township resident, took photos of billboards elsewhere in the state that contain what she considers objectionable content, such as advertisements for alcoholic beverages, and placed them on signs held up during the meeting.

"It will change our quality of life," Bartsack said to the township committee members.

Those who wanted the billboards to be erected said that taxes in the township were too high and any relief would be welcome.

"The thought of signs does not bother me, what bothers me more is higher property taxes," said township resident Mellissa Esser. A billboard would have been placed near Esser's property.

"It seems foolish to throw away a chance at a ratable," she said.

Resident John Gusz took a direct shot at the protesters, all dressed alike for solidarity.

"All the green shirts don't care because they are wasting money on green shirts," he said.

After the ordinance was withdrawn, Puglia declined to express an opinion on the outcome.

"I have friends on both sides and I see both sides of what they want and what they could do," Puglia said.

Township committee member Jaime Deveraux was against the ordinance but cautioned the town about damage the proposal caused.

"You allowed one ordinance to let you turn against each other," Deveraux said to the audience.