Jim Boyle Aug. 13, 2014, 8:39am


A real estate developer alleges that officials in Easton, Pa., amended the town's billboard zoning laws in order to enter an agreement with one of his competitors, whom in return dropped a lawsuit against the city's zoning board, according to a federal lawsuit filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Abraham Atiyeh, of Bethlehem, Pa., says the alleged scheme unlawfully prevented him from bidding for land leases on Easton's public property. He says that Easton officials violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by tailoring the ordinances to benefit one particular business over all others.

According to the complaint, the Easton City Council adopted a new ordinance at its April 11, 2013, meeting that created three zoning districts called Expressway Transitional (ET) Districts. The ordinance says that advertising billboards could only be installed in those three districts, provided the developers had entered into a lease agreement with the property owners.

The suit says two of the zoned areas is completely controlled by the city, and the third is a private cemetery that has tax exempt status because it is owned by a non-profit religious organization. Atiyeh says that the location of the third ET zone is illusory because it is highly unlikely that a non-profit organization would lease space to a for-profit commercial business. That leaves the final two zones in areas exclusively owned by Easton.

On July 11, 2013, the plaintiff sent a letter on behalf of his company, Pennsylvania Media, L.L.C., to city council and Easton administrator Glenn Steckman requesting a meeting to negotiate a lease on one of the two properties for a digital billboard, but the city officials ignored the request and never responded, the claim says.

The underlying reason for the new ordinance has to do with the zoning board's 2008 denial of a variance application filed by Adams Outdoor, which wanted to place a billboard on the grounds of a commercial property. The company filed an appeal at the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas, seeking a curative action that would allow Adams Outdoor to place the billboard on the commercial property.

Atiyeh says that the city officials came up with the ordinance to avoid possibility of the court awarding the curative action. With the new zoning ordinance, Easton would be able to maintain control of the billboard's placement, the claim alleges.

"The ordinance was designed to provide a preferred benefit to Adams Outdoor to the exclusion of all others, inclusive of competitors like Plaintiffs," the claim says.

At the May 22, 2013, city council meeting, Atiyeh spoke out against the approval of the lease with Adams Outdoor, saying that his competitor allowed the billboard lease with the commercial property to lapse and, therefore, no longer had standing in the zoning appeal. He also stated that he and other developers would offer to pay more for the lease in the ET zones.

The plaintiff says that Easton officials retaliated against the exercise of his First Amendment right to free speech by refusing to respond to his letter. Atiyeh claims that Steckman also retaliated by telling reporters in October that the plaintiff was, "out of his mind," and has "brought discredit to himself." Those comments were published in the local newspaper and, according to the complaint, damaged Atiyeh's ability to conduct business throughout the Lehigh Valley.

Atiyeh is represented by Philadelphia attorney Alan Fellheimer.

The federal case ID number is 5:14-cv-04707-EGS.

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