HAVERFORD — They say the wheels of justice turn slowly. Some people had forgotten the brouhaha and lengthy court battle over billboards coming to at 600 and 658 Lancaster Ave. and 1157 and 2040 West Chester Pike in Haverford that began a decade ago. But now it’s back.

About 200 residents from Haverford, Lower Merion and Radnor came to The Haverford School on Jan. 9 and listened to a presentation by James Byrne, the Haverford Township solicitor. After 27 hearings, the local Zoning Hearing Board had rejected large billboards planned by Bartkowski Investment Group, owned by Thaddeus Bartkowski, in 2012.

The company appealed to Common Pleas Court, which upheld the Zoning Hearing Board. The company then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which issued a partial ruling that found Haverford’s billboard ordinance (now rewritten) was unconstitutional but agreed that the billboards were too dangerous for those sites.

However, in December the company proposed slightly smaller billboards that would still be placed above the existing buildings. But at the beginning the billboard company argued that the signs have to be 672 square feet and they have to be 52 to 72 feet in the air to be safely read by passing drivers. The new plans call for billboards that are 500 square feet and 47 feet high.

The Commonwealth Court then sent the case back to the Common Pleas Court to determine whether some or all of the proposed use can be implemented and it is scheduled to be heard by Judge Spiro Angelos at the courthouse in Media on Jan. 21, 22, and 23.

Haverford commissioners Andy Lewis and Kevin McCloskey and Lower Merion Commissioner Scott Zelov urged residents to come to that hearing. Radnor Commissioner Moira Mulroney also attended, as did state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-166 of Haverford.

Byrne said that the township is against the billboards for several reasons, including the danger they could pose if they fell during high winds, a danger to pedestrians by distracting drivers and unattractive to nearby residential neighbors.

“The last thing you need with all that traffic and all those kids and everything going on there is to be looking at traffic and watching a billboard to try and get a number for where you’re going to go on vacation,” said Byrne. “What do you imagine could happen … The experts say you need two seconds to have something register. Think about closing your eyes for two seconds as you drove down Lancaster Avenue. Would anybody dare to do that?”

He showed photographs of incidents where the 1,000-pound billboards around the country had fallen down.

“These signs aren’t safe,” said Byrne. “How the heck can we go down to our residents and say put up another sign down lower, that’s unsafe so everybody can crash into each other, when you told us they weren’t safe?”

Also outdoor advertisers can put ads on other venues, such as on buses, bus stops, or grocery carts, he said.

While the application is not for LED billboards, the leases in effect on those sites over those properties permit LED billboards. Bartkowski has given interviews to business publications saying he plans to put digital billboards throughout the Philadelphia suburbs, said Byrne.

Last year the Tredyffrin Zoning Hearing Board rejected a digital billboard that Bartowski’s company had proposed for Paoli and that is under appeal.

A mother was concerned that her children’s school bus stop was across the street from one of the billboards and she believes they would cause a hazard to children and pedestrians.

“Just even crossing the road without billboards is scary,” she said.

During public comment, Kathy Case, a member of the Haverford Historical Commission, pointed out that the buildings along Lancaster Avenue above which the billboards would be placed “are part of the original business district in Bryn Mawr. They were built in the early 1920s … They are the only remaining original buildings along that strip in Haverford Township in the original business district. They were primarily auto showrooms … They really have that historic flavor … This little piece of Haverford Township is really all that’s left of that original business district.” She said the buildings may be put on the historic preservation list. She noted there are also pending court cases trying to increase tax revenue from buildings with billboards on them.

“All the municipalities are fighting this and some are caving,” she said. “This company has a lot of pressure and they have a lot of money.”

The residents are also planning a demonstration on Lancaster Avenue at 3 p.m. on Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Day, she said.

“I haven’t carried a picket sign in a long time,” said Case.

Her remarks were applauded.

Jane Hall, a former Haverford commissioner, said, “I’m painfully familiar with this particular issue. I’d like to thank you for all your hard work … My heart is ready to jump out of my chest right now because I’m so angry. It’s just so incredibly frustrating. And I know this is going to sound naïve, Jim (Byrne)…This guy is doing this on the backs of the taxpayers and all of us pay our taxes and we’re fighting this guy. When does it come to a point where as a taxpayer as a property owner that we go after him? This completely unfair to the people who live in this town … It’s terrible. He shouldn’t be able to get away with this.”

She asked Vitali what he can do to help them. “We have to fight this fight … We cannot let this guy roll over us. We have to do everything we can.” She asked what they could do to help.

Vitali said that he was part of the previous hearings and has talked about what can be done legislatively. He cosponsored a bill in 2009 but “what we’re dealing with is the Constitution, a legal battle.” He said that he would be of “any help” that he could.

Byrne said there was “no cause of action” against the billboard company because the “cases are all over the place” and it had already “won part of this case.”

“There comes a point in time where it becomes egregious against the taxpayers,” said Hall. “This guy just keeps coming back and coming back. We love paying you, Jim … for him to grab your time endlessly for more than a decade it’s just unacceptable.”

A real estate agent, Diane Drentlaw, said that a 2011 Philadelphia study had shown that billboards have a negative impact on the value of residential properties nearby.

Reuben Tehrani, who owns Bryn Mawr Oriental Rugs at 650 W. Lancaster Ave., also spoke, saying the billboards would adversely affect his business.

After the meeting, Bill Gustafson, a member of the Brynford Civic Association and a Haverford resident for 44 years, said that fighting against the billboards is “a no brainer.” He goes by the intersections every day and the billboards would pose a “risk and safety issue.”

Billboards belong on interstate highways not residential or local commercial streets, he said.

“The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court found the Haverford Zoning Ordinance unconstitutional, and that Bartkowski Investment Group was entitled to construct off-premise signs in Haverford,” the company said through a spokeswoman. “Over the past several years, Bartkowski Investment Group has attempted to engage township officials many times to discuss options for what these signs could look like. We have a vast portfolio of potential designs, ranging from traditional monopoles and extending to clock towers, community landmarks, and even dog parks, amphitheaters, and arts and cultural centers. The township has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money as they have deliberately refused to comply with the decision of the court while refusing to engage in any meaningful dialogue on a sensible resolution. We’d continue to prefer to work together, but that requires a willingness by township officials to engage in dialogue.”

Meanwhile, a meeting about the proposed West Chester Avenue billboards is set for 7:00 p.m. on Jan. 14 at the Manoa Fire Co., 115 S. Eagle Road in Havertown.


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