It’s not clear if Middletown will comply with ODOT’s 17-month-old order to remove a highway sign

It’s been more than 17 months since the Ohio Department of Transportation issued an order to the city of Middletown to remove the electronic message sign near the Interstate 75/Ohio 122 interchange.

And it’s not clear if the city will comply with the order issued on Feb. 16, 2017.

The electronic sign, that also bears Middletown’s logo, has been in operation since August 2016 and is located on property off Commerce Drive now owned by Atrium Medical Center. Previously, the property was the location of the former Score and Cronin Motors auto dealerships and other companies until the hospital bought it for nearly $2.6 million on Aug. 23, 2016, according to Warren County property records.

Atrium Medical Center said it is deferring any response or comments to the city, said Chelsey Levingston, Atrium Medical Center spokeswoman.

“The city of Middletown and Premier/Atrium Medical Center are working together with ODOT to alleviate any concerns regarding the digital sign near I-75,” said Shelby Quinlivan, city spokeswoman. City officials did not respond to a list of questions concerning the issue that were submitted by the Journal-News.

Middletown to participate in I-75 electronic billboard project

In December 2015, Middletown City Council approved an emergency ordinance for a development agreement with Commerce Center LLC, the property owner at the time, and Atrium Medical Center. The city contributed $75,000 for the project. At that time, Atrium Medical Center was in the process of purchasing the property and planned to demolish the old buildings on the site.

The original proposal was for Premier Health, the parent organization of Atrium Medical Center, to upgrade an old highway billboard for Cronin Motors to a refurbished high-definition electronic format for use by the hospital, which is located about a quarter-mile east of I-75, according to city officials at the time. Premier would pay about $400,000 to refurbish the sign for the hospital, or other Atrium health care advertising, and the city would be entitled to use about 5 percent — about one hour a day — to promote various city events.

However, any signage near an interstate comes under state regulations and required a state permit from ODOT. Two people in the sign business complained to ODOT in 2016 about the sign.

Nathan Fling, ODOT’s advertising device control supervisor, said there are interstate spacing rules and signs are permitted for “on-premises” businesses, or where the business is actually located. He said while Atrium owns the property where the sign is located, their operations are not located on that property.

Fling said ODOT and the city had exchanged correspondence in 2016 and 2017. However, there has not been a face-to-face meeting as requested by City Manager Doug Adkins in his response on March 9 to the removal order issued Feb. 16, 2017, by ODOT Director Jerry Wray. The city did not receive the removal order until Feb. 24, 2017.

“Removal notices are issued by ODOT for illegal signs, according to statute,” said Matt Bruning, ODOT press secretary. “Some situations are resolved right away while others take more time to resolve. We believe that all parties involved in this situation want to find a solution and we’re continuing to work in good faith toward that goal.”

Bruning said the last time the city corresponded with ODOT on the matter was in early summer. He said if a resolution cannot be reached among the parties, ODOT would involve the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to address the matter, and possible court action.

According to city records, ODOT notified the city in a Nov. 29, 2016, letter that the illegal sign was being maintained without a valid ODOT permit and is a violation of the Ohio Revised Code. It also was not eligible for such a permit, according to the Ohio Administrative Code.

The notice also said advertising devices adjacent to interstate highways were not permitted 500 feet of an interchange and that it must be located inside the municipal boundaries as they existed on Sept. 21, 1959. The city of Middletown did not annex that land until the 1990s. Before the annexation, it was under Warren County and Franklin Twp. control.

The notice gave the city 30 days of receipt of the letter, which was on Dec. 2, 2016, to voluntarily remove the sign. If not, removal order would be issued and fines of $100 a day would be imposed. Fling said fines are capped at $5,000.

Joe Vogel, a sign owner, was one of the people who complained to ODOT about the sign in Middletown in 2016. He told the Journal-News he noticed the sign last Saturday as he was traveling on I-75. He said he was concerned about the $75,000 of taxpayer money going toward an illegal billboard.

“If it were anyone else, they would be in front of the AGs (Attorney General’s) office to resolve the issue,” Vogel said.

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