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Paladino is lacking state OK for billboard Sign along Thruway in city needs permit

Carl Paladino's billboard along the downtown stretch of the Niagara Thruway -- which he has used to promote his candidacy for governor, sell his waterfront condos and skewer the targets of his ire -- lacks the necessary state permit.

The billboard's location within 660 feet of the Thruway requires a permit from the Thruway Authority that Paladino's company has not obtained, according to Thruway Authority spokeswoman Betsy Feldstein.

"The sign you're referring to is not currently permitted by the Thruway Authority," she told The Buffalo News.

The authority issued a permit for the billboard in 1998 to Cross Border Advertising, which at the time leased space from the previous owner of 199 Scott St., an eight-story building to which the sign is affixed.

The 5277 Group LLC, a company controlled by Paladino, bought the property at a county tax auction in 2000 for $20,000, and the sign reverted to its control several years later under circumstances that aren't clear.

Neither Paladino nor the previous owner of the sign would comment for this story.

The billboard requires both state and city permits. While the Thruway Authority requires a new state permit, Buffalo officials said the city permit issued to the previous sign owner is still valid to meet their requirements, provided the billboard has not been altered.

Paladino's company obtained an electrical permit from the city in November 2005 to illuminate the billboard, but city officials said that electrical work wasn't enough to require a new city permit.

The building has held a billboard facing traffic on the southbound Niagara Thruway since 1998, when TransAd Inc., a company affiliated with Cross Border Advertising, obtained a license from the city and permits from the city and Thruway Authority. The billboard is at a prime location, with about 70,000 vehicles a day driving past it.

The billboard initially advertised businesses and colleges, but it has taken a more political tone the past few years. Of late, it promoted Paladino's candidacy for governor and criticized city schools: "Our schools are Failin. The Board and Rumore must go!"

The billboard currently attacks The News with a sign that reads: "Spineless Stan Lipsey & The Buffalo News threw WNY under the bus." Paladino posted the sign in December, angry that The News endorsed Andrew M. Cuomo for governor instead of him and because the newspaper also accepted advertising on behalf of the Democratic candidate.

Feldstein, of the Thruway Authority, said Paladino's company was mailed a permit application Friday, after The News inquired about the billboard. The process begins with a one-page application and a $50 fee. If granted, a permit costs $100 a year.

If Paladino submits an application, Feldstein said, the authority "will make a determination if the sign is compliant with applicable regulations."

Meanwhile, the property is scheduled for an appearance April 5 in city Housing Court for code violations that date to 2007.

The condition of the billboard -- rusty metalwork holding up the 14-by-48-foot sign -- was one of the 10 code violations that city inspectors cited in March 2007.

The building was in such rough shape, starting with a hole in the roof spotted when inspectors viewed the structure on Google Earth, that the case was immediately referred to Housing Court.

Inspectors, in court documents, said the building is "posing a possible fire hazard and [has a] blighting effect on the City of Buffalo."

Housing Court records show the case was scheduled for trial in July 2007 but was postponed three times and adjourned twice, the last time in November 2007. The rationale for the adjournments, according to records: "Major rehab project needs time."

But inspection reports submitted to the court for at least 12 subsequent court appearances show that no major rehab work has started and that only three of the 10 code violations have been repaired. Outstanding violations include missing windows, a deteriorated roof, piles of debris, and loose and falling bricks.

Contractors obtained a license for asbestos abatement in 2009, and that job was completed last year, according to state records.

There are no current permits issued for the type of work required to correct most of the code violations, according to city records, and there have been no recent signs of construction activity.

The city initially was aggressive in dealing with the code violations when the building was cited in 2007, moving the matter directly to court and pressing to take it to trial. The case was adjourned three times, and Paladino's company entered a guilty plea, according to city officials. No penalties were imposed.

The 5277 Group as a corporate entity, rather than Paladino personally, was cited for the violations. Fines of up to $1,500 per violation could be hard to collect if the Scott Street building is the group's only asset.

Legal experts said the city has at least three legal options at its disposal if it wants to play hardball with Paladino:

Place the billboard in receivership and use the proceeds from advertising to repair and maintain the property. The market rate for the sign is an estimated $3,000 to $5,000 a month.

Cite Paladino personally for the violations if records show the 5277 Group is essentially Paladino operating behind a corporate shield. A judge then potentially could sentence Paladino to up to 15 days in jail for each uncorrected violation.

Papers filed with the state secretary of state list Paladino as the 5277 Group's "organizer." The company's most current report, filed last November with the state, lists his son, William Paladino, as "manager." William is chief executive officer of Ellicott Development, his father's primary company.

Cite the property for a violation for every day it remains out of compliance, which would escalate the total fines that could then be placed against the property. If unpaid, those fines could be the basis of a judgment and lien placed against the 5277 Group and/or Paladino, if he were named a party to the Housing Court case.

None of those options was available to then-Housing Court Judge Henry J. Nowak when he handled the case. He declined to comment for this story, saying it would be inappropriate because 199 Scott St. involves an ongoing case.

Nowak was elected to State Supreme Court last fall and has been succeeded in Housing Court by Patrick M. Carney. The responsibility for adjudicating the case now falls to him.

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com

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