As Peggy Murr hunkered down in her assigned booth at Haverford Township Day in October 2009, the longtime local resident figured she’d simply collect a few signatures while taking in the parade and other festivities. Her clipboard filled with almost 600 names.
Due west at the Newtown Square Harvest Festival, there was a similar reaction from the citizenry. The numbers have since multiplied, as the community group No Billboards has broadcast its message in Springfield, Haverford, Marple and Newtown townships.
And the billboards remain at bay. So far.
They have the right to safety, residents claim. The right to shape the appearance of their neighborhoods. But do they have the right, based on such prerogatives, to exclude legitimate business? That’s the question being debated by zoning officials, civic planning experts, legislators and the courts.
Promotion is an American touchstone. It lodges between the lines of the U.S. Constitution—fundamental and perhaps inalienable. But our cultural-commercial tug-of-war often pits the charge of promotion against the constraints of public welfare. “It’s a matter of competing interests,” says Hugh Donaghue, solicitor for Concord Township, another Delaware County locale grappling with the suitability of billboards.
The competition is between outdoor advertisers seeking prominent vantage points and local governments obliged to control development. “That’s what zoning boards are for,” says Murr.
No Billboards believes that the signs—given their dimensions, unpredictable content and electronic capabilities—pose a threat to the safety, taste and real estate values in their communities. Bartkowski Investment Group, an area firm that hopes to construct billboards along major roads in these towns, contends that its right to conduct business is what’s being threatened. And it’s challenging the applicable local ordinances.
“These commercial areas targeted are nestled within residential communities,” says Havertown resident Sandi Donato, who’s been outspoken about the issue. “They already have many distractions that make driving challenging. Once [billboards] go up, they don’t come down. They change the face of the township forever.”
Billboards, it seems, have been around longer than anyone can remember—painted onto the sides of barns and buildings, hard by railroad tracks and, of course, on turnpikes and the interstates. Right now on the Main Line, a short series of billboards set against a hillside along a curving stretch of Lancaster Avenue near the Devon Horse Show fairgrounds takes advantage of generous sight lines. And in tighter quarters in Ardmore, two billboards rise from rooftops on Lancaster to face a steady stream of motorists.
Emphasizing safety concerns, opponents in Delaware County argue that billboard size and elevation compel more than just a glance—a worriment for busy portions of Lancaster Avenue and West Chester Pike, two of the thoroughfares that figure into the Bartkowski Group’s plans. Residents are especially apprehensive about ever-changing digital billboards. The nonprofit Scenic America warns of “lingering looks,” and a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sets a distraction threshold of two seconds, beyond which the chances of car crashes increase “significantly.”
“It’s like a TV on the side of the roadway,” says Donaghue, keeping his eye on things in Concord, where applicant Mid-Atlantic Development Partners is proposing two “automatic changeable copy” signs on Route 202.
The Bartkowski Group owns and operates billboards elsewhere in the Philadelphia area and New York. They want to erect new ones at leased sites along Baltimore Pike in Springfield, Lancaster Avenue in Haverford, Sproul Road in Marple, and West Chester Pike in Haverford, Marple and Newtown townships. The signs themselves would be 14 feet high and 48 feet wide, and would be “safely legible at the speeds motorists are traveling” on those roads, says the company’s founding partner, Thaddeus Bartkowski, not-so-lovingly dubbed Mr. B.I.G. by local billboard opponents.
Public hearings have been going on for more than two years. And, so far, local zoning boards aren’t buying. Meanwhile, the Bartkowski Group has mounted a legal challenge. In Marple, the matter is already working its way through the courts. “They’re challenging the constitutionality of the ordinances,” says Media-based lawyer Jim Byrne, solicitor for Springfield and Haverford townships, and special counsel for Newtown. “That’s where we have our fundamental difference: A town can prohibit any use, as long as it’s for safety and welfare reasons.”
The local ordinances, say Byrne, almost uniformly permit one outdoor sign per property; some strip shopping centers may permit a second, with the same size restrictions. This effectively says, “No billboards,” as every place of business this side of the CIA displays its own sign—and billboards, by definition, are sizable. The Bartkowski Group challenge calls that “exclusionary” and seeks “site-specific relief” to build its billboards.
In Marple, another issue arose after the township had amended its ordinance early in 2009 to allow billboards, subject to size limitations, in a few designated areas. The Bartkowski Group met several times with township officials during the six-month review period. “Marple Township elected to disregard the input we provided,” says Bartkowski.
He subsequently filed a procedural appeal, claiming that the township was tardy in updating its formal code book. The appeal, which went Marple’s way in county court, now awaits a verdict from the Commonwealth Court.
The broader issue deals with more than technicalities. A 1970s amendment to the state constitution ranks “aesthetic values” with clean air and pure water as community rights. This case may test that ideal. “We think this is a novel issue that the courts will have to address,” says Byrne.
While many residents see billboards as less than beautiful, professionals clash on whether they belong in a given location. In his report submitted last December in support of the Bartkowski Group’s Haverford application, consultant Larry Waetzman—former community development director in Haverford—disagreed with several conclusions reached by Thomas Comitta, a certified planner representing the township. Waetzman acknowledged that, from an aesthetic standpoint, billboards are inappropriate for areas like Bryn Mawr that have a “sense of place” (pedestrian crosswalks, special events, that elusive quality known as charm). But he argued that Haverford’s West Chester Pike corridor and the township’s portion of Lancaster Avenue lack that character.
Parishioners of Bryn Mawr’s Our Mother of Good Counsel Church beg to differ, as do residents near West Chester Pike, where three lots in the township have been proposed for billboards. In addition to obtrusiveness, opponents cite the potential for inappropriate content.
Just past I-476 (the Blue Route, by the way, is protected from outdoor advertising per the federal Highway Beautification Act), Larry Cetlin’s property is one of five on Route 3 proposed as billboard sites in Marple Township. A local resident and businessman, Cetlin sees “no detrimental effect” on the immediate area and believes that a static billboard would not be a safety threat. In addition, his lease with the Bartkowski Group ensures that any advertising would not compete with his tenants on the same property. “I was careful of that in signing,” he says.
Ed Teen has a different perspective. He’s the owner of Meineke Car Care at West Chester Pike and Media Line Road, one of three proposed billboard sites in Newtown. Teen doesn’t own the property, but he believes a billboard would “take away the quality of the neighborhood.” In fact, his shop window sports a No Billboards placard.
Nearby residents are concerned about more than aesthetics. A youth recreational field and the Marple Newtown School District bus yard are on one side of the busy intersection, and the high school is a few blocks up Media Line. “Kids walk to school here,” says resident Ken Rimple. “I walk my dogs on Route 3. That would change if a billboard went up.”
The fear is that, static or not, a billboard looming overhead is too much of a distraction for motorists on busy roads. An assessment by Jerry Wachtel, a California-based consultant hired by Springfield and Haverford townships, called Baltimore Pike “visually cluttered” and emphasized the “complexity of road users’ tasks” on the Springfield artery, where several locations have been proposed for billboards. The billboards, Wachtel wrote, would be “directly counter to the community’s interest in public safety.”
While many contend that the safety threat is self-evident, no studies showing a direct cause-effect relationship between billboards and car accidents have been presented at the many public hearings in the various townships. Beyond the analysis and misgivings about specific sites, there’s a growing sense among municipalities that a blanket ban of billboards will not hold up legally. That’s been the ruling in several recent cases, as state courts have held the exclusion of billboards (and legitimate business uses in general) to a high standard. The message taken by some townships watching from the sidelines: Identify an area suitable for billboards.
While Marple was cracking the door to billboards in 2009, neighboring Newtown also subtly shifted its stance to allow for size-restricted billboards in light industrial zones. Radnor—which had expressly barred billboards—moved to permit 64-square-foot “off-premises” signs in Wayne’s business district and a few other small, commercially zoned areas. And last year, Edgmont Township, which had prohibited billboards as recently as 2009, zoned for them along a light industrial stretch of West Chester Pike. “We want to guide a billboard applicant to an area where it would make the most sense for all,” says Edgmont Township manager Samantha Reiner.
As hearings continue, there is some legislative movement afoot to strengthen local government’s hand. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Daylin Leach of Upper Merion would enable municipal zoners to regulate billboards across a broader range of criteria. “It’s not a blank check,” says Leach. “But it gives them the tools.”
In the state Assembly, Rep. Bill Adolph of Springfield has reintroduced a bill that would prohibit billboards within hailing distance of schools, houses of worship and other neighborhood fixtures, plus anywhere along state-designated highways, unless the local “governing body” gave its assent.
“It’s a public safety feature,” Adolph contends. “Local officials should make those determinations.”
Making this a nonpartisan—if somewhat contentious—issue.
» More Neighborhood Stories