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Mar 10, 2010  |  Vote 0    0

Billboards approved under scrutiny

Majority of billboards green-lighted as Etobicoke York council criticized

Etobicoke Guardian
By Tamara Shephard

Etobicoke Councillor Suzan Hall recently rejected two campaign donations and a plea for help from a local company trying to win community council support for a new digital LED billboard.

Hall told Etobicoke York Community Council Tuesday afternoon, March 9, she received two $750 cheques from the co-owners of the Ontario numbered company for her election campaign, but returned them with a rejection letter.

The Etobicoke North (Ward 1) councillor related the incident as councillors debated a slightly modified, new billboard application from Sylvia Aiello, co-owner of the company at 16 Queen Elizabeth Blvd.

"I find this entirely and utterly inappropriate," Hall told councillors in chambers, as she urged them to refuse Aiello's latest, now sixth, application since 2007 to convert her existing tri-vision rooftop billboard to an electronic LED sign within 30 metres of the Gardiner Expressway.

The city's sign bylaw prohibits third-party signs within 400 metres of the highway.

Councillors responded firmly, some in astonishment, as they rejected Aiello's latest application 9-2, with only councillors Rob Ford and Frank Di Giorgio supporting it, both stating they had not received money from Aiello.

"I respect the decision of council," Aiello said, when a reporter asked her to respond to Hall's accusations.

"I find it curious that something that was already dealt with, almost by slight of hand, comes back to us as a new item," said Etobicoke-Lakeshore (Ward 5) Councillor Peter Milczyn, in whose ward the company is located. "This is very close to residential. A digital sign would be in people's bedrooms."

Councillors learned from city staff Aiello had modified her earlier, rejected application to change by 10 degrees the angle of the proposed sign's 'V'.

Hall's explosive revelations marked the dramatic high point of five hours of - at times heated, sarcastic - debate Tuesday afternoon among councillors on 37 applications for mostly third-party, digital LED billboard sign "variances."

City staff argued against the variances in all but three instances.

Yet, councillors voted to approve 73 per cent of the billboard applications, refuse 14 per cent and defer 13 per cent.

Deferral sends an application to a new sign variance committee, essentially killing it, staff said.

At Tuesday's meeting, some councillors argued the billboards posed safety hazards, and cautioned against the dangers of distracted driving. While other politicians spoke of job generation and a need to support the sign industry.

The incident comes as Etobicoke York council is under fire for approving dozens of billboard sign "variances" in recent months even after city staff rejected them for not being minor enough in nature.

Last month, the billboard issue heated up at Toronto City Council as Holyday and Etobicoke-Lakeshore Councillor Peter Milczyn supported a motion calling for city manager Joe Pennachetti to consider "exercising his discretion" to ensure that the remaining sign applications being dealt with before the new sign bylaw takes effect April 6 be reported not only to community councils, but to Toronto City Council for final approval.

Pennachetti sent a memo indicating he would not get involved. Holyday provided The Guardian with the memo.

Further, city staff cited safety concerns and argued against what it called a "proliferation" of billboards along the Gardiner Expressway.

While most near-Gardiner applications were denied or deferred, one was approved at 16 Arnold St., 0.0 metres from the Gardiner right-of-way.

"One would seem to say it's intuitively obvious that you can't have a plethora of changeable message signs and video display signs without them being a distraction, any more than talking on a cell phone is considered to be a distraction," said Allan Smithies, manager of transportation services for west district.

Pro-business Etobicoke Centre (Ward 2) Councillor Doug Holyday became so concerned with Etobicoke York council's billboard approvals, he contacted the city's integrity commissioner Janet Leiper last month and urged her to investigate.

Leiper told Holyday she couldn't for lack of evidence.

Yesterday in an interview, Holyday said he may revisit the issue with Leiper in light of Hall's report she received campaign donations.

During Tuesday's meeting, Holyday repeatedly expressed safety concerns posed by the billboards, as well as other concerns related to some councillors' support of the billboard applications.

"A lot of the public, and other members of council, think something is amiss here," Holyday said of Etobicoke York Community Council's overwhelming approval of billboard applications in recent months. "Maybe something isn't amiss. This travesty that has gone on here is one of the biggest abuses of our city policy since I've been on council."

Fellow Etobicoke Centre Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby saw it differently.

"I would not charge as Councillor Holyday does that there is something rotten here," Lindsay Luby said. "I think people don't think things through. (Councillors) don't consider how things look."

York West Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti voted in favour of many of the proposed billboards.

"I will do my best to repeal that Draconian (sign) bylaw we passed that day," Mammoliti said of the existing sign bylaw he supported years ago.

Like-minded Etobicoke North Councillor Rob Ford announced his intention at the start of the meeting to vote in favour of every single billboard.

And he did. All billboard applications in Ford's ward were approved.

Former Toronto councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, now a lobbyist for Pattison Outdoor sign company, said Pattison and other companies realize this is "the last chance we basically have" to get their applications through, given tough new regulations governing billboards comes into effect April 6.

"What you did was basically starve the momentum to put the sign industry in Toronto out of business. Some community councillors realized the ramifications. I applaud you for that," Korwin-Kuczynski told Etobicoke York council.

In January, Pattison gained community council approval for a double-faced, third-party sign on the Christie bakery property on Park Lawn Road 55 metres from the Gardiner.

The sign is nearly 300 times the height permitted.

Korwin-Kuczynski told councillors in January the sign could bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue annually.

Etobicoke-Lakeshore (Ward 6) Councillor Mark Grimes put forward motions to defer all but two billboard application in his ward, saying he "didn't have time to do due diligence on them."

Councillor Milczyn also took issue with the volume of billboards being approved.

"The overwhelmingly majority of applications before us today don't conform with the existing bylaw," Milczyn said. "A number of the signs that I and others find problematic that were approved over the last months and years, they don't comply with the existing bylaws. The issue is a shift in political culture whereby previously we adhered to our sign bylaws. Now, for some reason, we don't. That's the issue."

Rami Tabello, with illegalsigns.ca, urged councillors to stop making what he called "rash" decisions on billboard approvals.

"It's an insane situation," he said. "Now is the time to close the barnyard door. It will take the courage of all councillors to shut down this situation."

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