They "made him look" -- and William Logan didn't like what he saw.

Mary Jo Napoli, too, said she wasn't thrilled when she was forced to look at them.

They catch B.J. White's eye every day, and she's not happy with them, either.

"They" are advertising benches, and Logan, Napoli and White -- all leaders in their respective neighborhoods of Northland, northwest Columbus and Clintonville -- believe there are problems with their proliferation on city sidewalks and that it's time for city officials to address the situation.

"Northland wants all nonauthorized bench locations and the associated benches removed, and we want all authorized benches brought into compliance," said Logan, coordinator of the Northland Code Task Force.

After some cajoling over the past several weeks, notably from Logan but also others, city officials seem ready to oblige with his request by demanding compliance with a 1989 10th District Court of Appeals ruling that limited the location of advertising benches to those issued building permits between 1972-75.

The administrator for the Columbus Division of Infrastructure Management, Frank D. Williams, sent a letter April 30 to the management of the Bench Billboard Co. of Cincinnati, owner of most -- if not all -- advertising benches in the city and the subject of the appellate court decision.

"The city of Columbus has recently received a number of complaints against new sign benches illegally located within the city's right of way in violation of City Code Chapter 902," Williams wrote. "The placement of any bench within the city's right of way at a location that has not been previously approved in writing by the city would be removed by city crews on or after May 14, 2018, without further notice."

The letter went on to say the city would hold a confiscated bench for 30 days and, if it isn't claimed, will "dispose of it appropriately."

It's "a reasonable request to protect the health, safety and welfare of Columbus citizens," Logan wrote in an email response to the administrator's letter.

Increase in number

Logan issued an updated report on ad benches in the neighborhood March 31. In it, he stated that installation of the street-level billboards in Northland has increased by 186 percent since his first report in 2009.

The area bounded by Cooke Road to the south, Stelzer Road on the east, Schrock Road to the north and Interstate 71 to the west had 22 advertising benches nine years ago, Logan said.

His most recent survey found 41 of them.

"They constantly move these things around to take advantage of what they think are the ideal locations," Logan said.

Napoli, a member of the Northwest Civic Association, said she began noticing benches being installed along Bethel Road in 2015. Eventually, she said, there were five benches stretching from just west of Dierker Road east to the Olentangy Plaza. More benches began showing up the following year on Henderson Road in the vicinity of Reed Road, she said.

"So in 2016, I put together a portfolio in the springtime of the beautiful, beautiful Bethel Road spring blossoms and landscaping on all the residential complexes, the condominium and apartment complexes ... and in contrast, these benches with, in my view, very out-of-place advertising," she said.

"We try to be business-friendly, but placing advertisements anywhere and everywhere in the neighborhood can only have a negative effect on the cultural landscape," Northwest Civic Association President Nick Cipiti wrote in an email. "It just makes the neighborhood look crass."

In exploring the issue, Napoli said she learned ad benches have been allowed as a "nonconforming use" in some locations since the late 1980s.

"Of course, that didn't make sense to me, because they started appearing in 2015, give or take a year, not the 1980s," she said. "This place was cornfields in the 1980s."

Difference of opinion

According to Logan, 25 of the benches in the Northland area and all of those in northwest Columbus are in unauthorized locations, based on his interpretation of the 1989 court ruling.

That ruling stated that 266 advertising benches, for which city officials had issued building permits in the public right of way from 1972-75, could remain, even though Columbus City Council members had voted to ban them.

"The entry is sufficiently specific and should not be a basis of confusion in that it is apparent that the city cannot remove any of plaintiff's benches from the right of way since they all were so permitted to be located in the right of way when the city issued its permits," that ruling states, in part.

The appellate court judgment left 16 benches grandfathered in for the Northland area, Logan said, so he doesn't understand how there can be 41 today, or any along Bethel and Henderson roads.

Bench Billboard Co. doesn't see it that way. In an email response to several questions relating to the issues Logan and others raised, the firm replied:

"Bench Billboard's benches are lawfully placed. Bench Billboard is not responsible for any benches placed by others."

The response was not attributed to any individual at the company.

According to Logan, Bench Billboard Co. is now the sole provider of such advertising sites in the city, having acquired the Advertising Bench Co. of Columbus in January.

An employee confirmed that via email.

Bench Billboard was offered the opportunity to respond to the April 30 letter, but had not done so by press time.

"The city has been operating under this binding court order issued by the trial court in 1987, and subsequently affirmed by the 10th District Court of Appeals in Bench Billboard Company v. City of Columbus in 1989," Meredith C. Tucker, City Attorney Zack Klein's deputy chief of staff for communications, wrote in an email. "Any bench billboards in locations outside the scope of the court order would be regulated under Title 9 of the Columbus City Codes."

Title 9 states, in part, that no one, "regardless of intent, shall place, deposit, maintain or use, or cause or permit to be placed, deposited, maintained or used upon any street, alley, sidewalk, bikeway as defined in Section 900.03, highway or right of way any materials, containers, vending equipment, structures, appliances, furniture, merchandise, bench, stand, sign or advertising of any kind, or any other similar device or obstruction except as authorized by the director public service and/or their designee."

No authorizations have taken place since the 1989 court ruling, said Jeffrey M. Ortega, assistant director of the Department of Public Service.

"The director of the department has not permitted any billboard benches beyond what previously allowed in the legal proceedings," Ortega wrote in an email.

'Ongoing issue'

"It's been an ongoing issue since I moved to the area in 2002," said Dave Paul, chairman of the Northland Community Council development committee. "To some degree, we feel kind of exploited by it, because what we have is an advertiser who's taking advantage of the public right of way.

"The agreement many years ago was that they would be sited at specific locations. Well, they just move around like roaches."

White acknowledged the ad benches along North High Street in Clintonville, part of District 9, which she represents, are in locations authorized by the 1989 decree.

That doesn't make them any easier to accept in the public right of way, she said.

"Now is our opportunity to address the right of way," she said.

In an email to an aide for City Councilman Michael Stinziano, White indicated the presence of the benches is hindering her efforts to revitalize the stretch of North High Street just south of the Worthington border.

"We are trying to appeal to purposeful development and attract business to this area," she wrote to Kevin McCain in late January. "It becomes problematic when it is densely cluttered with insignificant advertising that solicits business for a paying advertiser without any permissions or rental premium. They seem to just exist and are exploiting the owners of the property on which they sit."

McCain said he has had some success working with officials at Bench Billboard Co. to resolve complaints from residents and business owners, particularly in a West Franklinton case.

"The Cincinnati group has been very helpful and responsive when we've called," he said. "They went out there and tried to remedy it themselves, but when the problem persisted, they went out and removed the bench."

"It's really been on a case-by-case basis," Stinziano said.

No traction

White, a real-estate agent, said she called Bench Billboard Co. to inquire what advertising would cost and was told $1,000 a year, representing by her estimates at least $1 million in annual income for the Cincinnati firm.

That, White said, is a lot of money going to a business "that they're not paying taxes on to the city of Columbus."

Napoli and White both also complained about the trash that tends to accumulate on and around advertising benches.

Bench Billboard Co. responded: "Since 1959, Bench Billboard's benches provide needed seating at bus stops. Benches do not litter; people gathering at COTA stops may litter, be there a bench or no bench."

"We realize this is not the most important thing on City Council's agenda," Paul said. "It's not the most important thing on our agenda, either, but it's been going on for so long and we just don't seem to be getting any traction.

"It isn't just a Northland issue or one that Northland's sensitive about. There are people in Clintonville who are sensitive about it, as well."

"I have spent nine years attempting to get the benches brought into compliance in the Northland area, and quite frankly, not been successful," Logan said.

The only difference between now and then, he added: more benches.

At the Northland Community Council's May 1 meeting, Logan received unanimous support for not only working on the bench issue in that neighborhood but also seeking to involve members of area commissions around the city in the campaign.

From now on, Logan vowed, he intends to take his bench-compliance campaign "from the top down," starting with council members and the city attorney's office.

"And anybody else who will listen to me," Logan said.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1

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