The digital billboard on the Margate Causeway, before it was taken down.

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A controversial electronic billboard proposal on the Margate Causeway may be going back to the drawing board, following a judge’s decision Friday.

Superior Court Judge Julio L. Mendez’s 37-page decision largely sided with billboard opponents in Northfield and elsewhere, who have complained the sign violates local ordinances and when lit is far too bright.

Attorney Stephen Hankin, who represented the opponents, said he was delighted, calling the decision “thoughtfully written and analyzed.”

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Hankin said Mendez’s ruling “is a phenomenal decision for Margate, for all the residents and all the people who have to pass by the Margate Bridge road and have to look at an LED nuisance.”

The Egg Harbor Township Planning Board initially granted approval in September 2011. The sign was turned on in March 2012, but legal issues pulled the plug by June 1.

The key issue was that the applicant should have sought a Zoning Board variance. Mendez wrote one was needed in order to build the sign in the marine commercial zone. Because there was no variance, Mendez wrote, the Planning Board had no right to grant approval.

Mendez also sided with opponents on whether or not billboards were principal uses, and if so, could two principal uses share a lot in the marine commercial zone. He ruled in this instance the billboard was a principal use, and the township appeared to prohibit similar dual uses.

He also recommended developers seek a Zoning Board variance for the two uses.

In his ruling, Mendez wrote that Egg Harbor Township’s ordinances did not permit an electronic billboard in areas zoned for marine and commercial uses. Earlier township officials wrote laws limiting billboards to business or industrial districts, Mendez noted, not commercial zones.

Mendez also noted that when the township was contemplating its billboard ordinance in 1993, the township planner wrote the intent was to limit billboards to the Garden State Parkway and Atlantic City Expressway, since they could not be banned outright.

Furthermore, township officials took pains to list the potential uses in the marine commercial zone — and billboards were excluded.

Mendez also batted away the Planning Board’s arguments in approving the billboard.

The board in its approval argued that “commercial” zones and “business” zones were substantially similar. Mendez disagreed, since the ordinances made a distinction between the two areas.

Mendez also disagreed with the board’s arguments that existing billboards show billboards are legal in the zone. Existing billboards were built before a 1976 ordinance banned them, and later ordinances show the township has historically restricted many uses in the marine commercial zone.

Jim Garth, township planning board chairman; Chet Atkins, president of Jersey Outdoor Media; and Peter Boyer, attorney for Atkins’s firm, said they had not read the decision and declined substantive comment. Marc Friedman, township solicitor, did not return a call seeking comment.

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Follow Derek Harper on Twitter @dnharper


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