Utica council denies variance request for new M-59 billboard

By: Brad D. Bates | Shelby - Utica News | Published September 19, 2012

UTICA — The Utica City Council reaffirmed its policy that enough is enough when it comes to billboards along M-59 Sept. 11.

The council unanimously denied a request for a zoning variance to construct a new billboard along the expressway on a vacant lot at Auburn Road and the M-59 Expressway.

“I live in the area, real close,” Councilman Bill Cuddington said. “The neighbors have all complained to me how bright these (billboards) are, so it’s very hard for me to say yes to something like this.”

“The residents of Utica, who I represent, definitely are unhappy with the number of billboards on M-59,” Councilwoman Faith Terenzi said, citing the belief that the city’s five M-59 billboards take away from Utica’s “hometown” feel.

The request was for a variance in the zoning restrictions on sign heights and size by Utica Outdoor Media LLC, of Southfield.

Specifically, the request was for an additional 60 feet on the height restriction for a 100-foot sign and an additional 950 square feet on the area restrictions for a 1,200-square-foot sign.

“Due to factors including, but not necessarily limited to, the location, size and shape of the parcel, the setback distance of 20-300 feet from M-59, and the 40-50 foot drop in M-59 from the service drive, requiring strict compliance with the ordinance effectively deprives applicant of use of the property for even billboard use,” a letter from Utica Outdoor Media LLC’s attorneys at Kirk, Huth, Lange and Badalamenti said.

“This purpose would allow the property to be used in a manner consistent with current zoning. Variances from the strict application of the ordinance are appropriate and necessary in this circumstance.”

The city’s Planning Commission and former Planning Commissioner John Ambrose, who gave advice on the application before his recent retirement, did not agree with the attorneys’ assertions.

“The petitioner’s reason for this request, which is due to the petitioner’s own site selection, is a problem that is self-created (too far from M-59 to be seen),” a letter from Ambrose to council said.

“Further, a petition which is 480 percent over the permitted sign area for a billboard and 250 percent over the allowable sign height for a free-standing sign is far too excessive to be granted a variance.”

The site’s current owner, Brent Smith, asked council to grant the variance, so he could sell the property to Utica Outdoor Media LLC.

He said that, following the construction of M-59, the 0.27-acre lot is all that remains of the property that has been in his family for generations.

“Had M-59 not been put through, we would still have my grandfather’s farm and a much bigger piece of land there,” Smith said. “We’ve been sitting on this property for 10 to 15 years now, and there is very little use we’ve been able to find for this property.

“It is likely that, if the council does not grant this petitioner’s request … we will be applying ourselves for one as a hardship, because we’ve owned the land for so long, and we’ve been paying taxes on it for so long, and it hasn’t generated any money at all simply because of the size.”

Joey Oram, owner of Utica Outdoor Media LLC, declined comment about his future plans for the site following the council’s decision.