For more than 30 years, Camden residents living by the Ben Franklin Bridge and I-676 have fought successfully against billboards. But a move from businessman Drew Katz, CEO of Interstate Outdoor Advertising and son of the late Lewis Katz, a longtime Camden supporter, could soon change all that — to the detriment of Camden's community.
At a time when Camden's waterfront has attracted significant investment, Katz is pushing for a billboard that would dramatically alter the landscape of the area and be an eyesore for residents. Katz is using charitable promises and claims of honoring his father's legacy, even though he sought the state permit two years before his father's death in 2014.
Experts claim the billboard will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in profits, of which Katz said he will donate about $200,000 to charity.
Charity should not be quid pro quo to gain a favorable ruling. In New Jersey, applicants seeking a zoning variance cannot offer something unrelated to direct use of the land — in this case the promise of donations to charities — in order to sway the board to grant the variance.
In our opinion, this is not about community benefits but rather about the benefits to the Katz family legacy. If this endeavor is truly altruistic, with benefits outweighing the burden on the community, then why has Katz refused to put together a framework in writing to hold Interstate accountable in a binding Community Benefits Agreement? Better yet, if he feels so strongly about giving back to Camden, he could consider designating one of his 1,100 other billboards.
Despite a long history of litigation, including a 2001 Superior Court judge's overturning Interstate's zoning permits along I-676 and a 2002 out-of-court settlement between Katz and the late community activist Frank Fulbrook on another billboard along the Ben Franklin Bridge, Katz again ignored residents' voices opposing the billboard and took his application to the city's zoning board.
Zoning board members disregarded expert testimony, public comment from nearly 100 diverse residents from various neighborhoods, and the law, which explicitly prohibits billboards at this location. The meeting was heated, and zoning board chairman Robert Hamilton, who supported the measure, called the opposition's objections "politics."
Residents continue to stand up and speak out in opposition. Immediately after the zoning board meeting, neighbors initiated a highly successful letter-writing campaign, delivering nearly 100 letters and counting more than 500 signatures in opposition to the mayor's desk. These residents are outraged over the board's decision.
We implore Mayor Frank Moran to stand with his constituents in North Camden, Cooper-Grant, and beyond to support the redevelopment plan by vetoing the zoning board's meeting minutes.
We also ask the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which is reviewing the project, to revoke Interstate's 2012 conditional permit to place a billboard at this location.
The promises and wants of a single wealthy influencer should not outweigh the negative effects on thousands of Camden residents.
Katz has pitted vulnerable Camden residents and struggling nonprofits against each other, while disregarding the desires of the community. This is encroachment. The residents opposing this project are just as tired as those supporting it of having our community voices drowned out by wealthy influencers.
Luis Gaitan, a licensed engineer, is a lifelong Camden resident who resides in North Camden. He is president of Concerned Citizens of North Camden and founder and mentor for Camden youth through "I Run This City."