Inside Your Town

Developer Abe Atiyeh warns city council about proposed lease agreement for billboard

EASTON, Pa.+ - A contentious area businessman bluntly warned Easton officials that an outdoor sign company is bullying them into an agreement with tactics he himself regularly uses to get his way.

"You're being blackmailed," developer Abe Atiyeh told Easton City Council Wednesday night. "I do it all the time. … It's Land Development 101."

Atiyeh told council he was speaking "neutrally" in trying to expose the alleged tactics used by Adams Outdoor Advertising in negotiating a proposed 20-year lease with for a one- or two-sided electronic sign in Hackett Park. "You're being threatened," Atiyeh said.

City administrator Glenn Steckman refuted Atiyeh's characterization of the lease negotiations, saying Adams acted with "the highest ethical business standards."

Atiyeh was not above making a threat of his own. He forthrightly declared what he would do if council decided to approve the agreement -- "It's illegal what you're doing. I'm going to sue the city," said Atiyeh.

Atiyeh owns a sign company, Palmer L.P., of Whitehall Township, Lehigh Co., that recently was sued for beginning operation of an electronic billboard along the eastbound lanes of Route 22 in Palmer Township, Northampton Co., between the Route 33 and 25th Street exits, without having all the proper permits. That suit filed by Palmer Township was dropped after Atiyeh obtained the missing permit late last month.

Two lawyers -- Atty. Mark Monsour of Wyomissing, Berks Co., speaking for Lamar Advertising of Allentown, and Atty. Mark Malkames, representing Pennsylvania Media -- also criticized the lease with Adams, though none with Atiyeh's outspokenness.

Atty. Victor Cavacini of Allentown, representing Adams, called the complaints about the lease "sour grapes," noting that there is no requirement for competitive bidding for council to enter into such an agreement.

Council eventually voted 7-0 to table the proposed lease.

Adams wants to place the sign in a remote wooded area of Hackett Park, where it would be seen by motorists traveling along Route 22 near 13th Street.

Over the next two decades, the lease with Adams could earn Easton $491,000 if a one-sided electronic billboard is installed after zoning and planning requirements are met, and $765,000 if a two-sided sign is erected. The money would pay for park improvements.

Atiyeh claimed that Adams offer was low, considering the company would earn $1 million a year in "gross revenue" for the sign. "I might give you $100,000 a year," Atiyeh said. "Why would you [settle] for $50,000?"

The lease with Adams also could help resolve a legal problem for the city. The assistant city solicitor told council two weeks ago that Adams might consider withdrawing a lawsuit filed last year against the city for not having zoned areas where billboards are permitted. (The city amended the zoning ordinance to create areas where billboards are allowed after Adams filed its lawsuit.)

Atiyeh was incredulous that council would consider the lease with Adams. "You're being sued," Atiyeh jeered. "They are not your friend."

Mayor Sal Panto replied, "There's no friendship here. It [is] a business decision."

Council member Elinor Warner asked the solicitor William Murphy to make sure the lease agreement does not violate the city's parks ordinance, while council member Michael Fleck said, "We should see if we can get more money."

Council member Roger Ruggles, who spoke against the lease two weeks ago, said, he was concerned that even though the sign might affect people living within the city limits would be unaffected by the sign, "There is no question in my mind that people living [in the 1600 and 1700 blocks of Spring Garden Street in neighboring Wilson borough] will be impacted."

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