EHT BILLBOARD105989553.jpg

A judge has ordered the owners of a controversial LED billboard on the Margate Causeway to halt operation by June 1 while a lawsuit makes its way through the courts.

Staff photo by Anthony Smedile, March 22, 2012

A lawsuit filed Monday by the chairman of the Northfield Planning Board alleges the developers of a 50-foot-tall LED billboard on the Margate Causeway illegally filled in wetland prior to receiving a minor site plan approval from Egg Harbor Township planners.

The billboard, which was approved in September, was erected last month on property Hackney’s Boat Yard Inc. had leased to the Moorestown-based Jersey Outdoor Media. One digital sign facing Northfield and two conventional signs facing Margate are on the board.

While officials say the billboard did not disturb any wetland, neighbor Richard Levitt — who owns a home facing the bay in Northfield — has said he believes the developers circumvented municipal code and state regulations to build the signs. In addition to the owner and leasee, defendants include the township, the Egg Harbor Township Planning Board and the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The suit, filed by Levitt and his wife, Deborah, alleges the developers “removed vital wetlands apparently before their surveyor visited the site,” resulting in a plan that didn’t reflect the billboard’s proximity to coastal wetlands.

Similarly, construction began before a necessary permit through the Coastal Area Facility Review Act had been acquired. The permits, administered by the DEP, are required for most coastal development in the area.

Larry Hajna, a DEP spokesman, said the state-mandated CAFRA permit application was filed last week. Land Use Enforcement is investigating the alleged violation, he said.

The application, signed by owner Wayne Hackney on April 6, requests a CAFRA permit with filing fees totaling $3,980.

Hajna said the process is set up for developers to file an application before construction begins. If a violation is discovered, officials have the option to file a notice of violation which will typically call for a remedy to the issue.

Levitt also hired his own surveyor, who allegedly found that the billboard violated a township zoning requirement that billboards must be at least 1,000 feet apart.

“Whether measured from their midpoints . . . or whether measured by their nearest point, the billboard is less than 1,000 feet from the closest billboard along Margate Bridge Road,” according to the suit.

In addition to the alleged violations, the suit states that the billboard allows “flashes of light to enter into (the Levitts’) bedroom window, ruining their quiet enjoyment” and destroys “the natural beauty of the scenic corridor.”

The suit seeks injunctive relief compelling the developers to cease operation and remove the billboard, to remediate the disturbed wetland, and to reimburse the Levitts’ counsel fees and court costs.

Chet Atkins, president of Jersey Outdoor Media, said he has not yet seen the lawsuit and declined to comment on specific allegations.

“We complied with everything we knew we had to do,” he said.

Hackney, the land owner, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said the municipality had reached out to the DEP to find out if there were any violations, but has not yet received a response. As of Tuesday afternoon, he said he hadn’t received a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment on specifics.

“To the best of our knowledge and my knowledge, everything they’ve done is legal and everything we’ve done is legal,” he said.

Stephen Hankin, the Levitts’ attorney, said he expects court dates to be scheduled next Monday. Levitt did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Contact Wallace McKelvey: