Bob Makin, @ReporterBMakin6:16 p.m. EDT October 17, 2014
In a published decision that will become precedent, the state appellate court paved the way for Franklin Township and other municipalities to ban billboards, previously deemed a form of free speech.
FRANKLIN (Somerset) - An unprecedented 40-page decision by the Appellate Division of the state's Superior Court has paved the way for not only the township but other municipalities to ban digital billboards from their communities.
Judges Marianne Espinosa delivered the unanimous decision today that she shared with Judges Clarkson Fisher and Ellen Koblitz. The decision will be published and serve as precedent, township attorney Louis Rainone said.
"It's one of the first in the country that upholds a ban," Rainone said. "We couldn't find another, so it looks like it's the first time, which makes a pretty significant change in New Jersey law. Towns lose these billboard cases all the time."
The decision reversed a constitutional ruling last year in Superior Court that allowed for two billboards to be built by E&J Equities, a subsidiary of Rotor Clip, one of the township's largest taxpayers. E&J sued the township when it denied permits for the billboards, citing quality of life issues for residents, as well as distracted driving concerns.
E&J's township-based attorney Francis P. Linus said he is reviewing the decision to determine whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. That will be a challenge in the face of a unanimous appellate decision, Rainone said.
"They have to convince the Supreme Court to take it," he said. "I think it's very well-reasoned, but you never know. It's an important issue."
The issue's initial champion, Councilwoman Roz Sherman, said the decision was a victory for the township's residents and their quality of life.
The $110,000 the township invested in the lawsuit and its appeal was well spent, Sherman said.
"We wanted to take care of residents, and we did," she said. "It is a very happy moment. Our attorney did a great job, as well as the township staff. I'm hopeful other communities will benefit from this, and I think they will. And we will be extremely happy to support them any way we can. It's nice to win one once in a while."