MEDIA COURTHOUSE — A decade-long battle between Haverford Township and the Bartkowski Investment Group over the proposed placement of billboards in heavily trafficked corridors of Lancaster Avenue and Haverford Pike returned to court this week.
Haverford has been fighting the proposal since 2009, when BIG originally hoped to place billboards measuring 672 square feet and as high as 77 feet in the air at five locations.
Revised plans call for four slightly smaller billboards measuring 432 to 553 square feet at 600 and 658 Lancaster Ave., and 1157 and 2040 West Chester Pike, with three between 46 and 52 feet above ground level. One, in an area below the roadway level near the I-476 on-ramps, would remain 72 feet high and two would rest atop two-story buildings.
Thaddeus Bartkowski, owner of BIG, testified Wednesday that the locations were chosen due to high traffic volumes, the location of hundreds of nearby businesses that could potentially advertise, zoning necessary for Pennsylvania Department of Transportation approval and a lack of advertising competition.
The township Zoning Hearing Board initially rejected the plans in 2012, prompting BIG to file an appeal in Delaware County Common Pleas Court. BIG took the fight to Commonwealth Court after the Common Pleas Court sided with the zoning board.
A December 2014 Commonwealth Court order from Judge Kevin Brobson held that the Common Pleas Court did not err in refusing to grant BIG relief in the form of approving its proposed billboards at the proposed sites, but also found a section of the zoning ordinance – which has since been rewritten – was unconstitutional because it excluded billboards from the entire municipality and that the township “did not prove a substantial relationship between the municipality-wide exclusion and the public health, safety, morality, or general welfare.”
Brobson found the lower court should have considered whether alternative relief “can and should be made available to BIG with respect to the proposed sites,” which is the issue presently before Delaware County Common Pleas Court Judge Spiros Angelos.
Attorney Rob Dunlop, representing BIG, argued that Brobson’s order found his client is “entitled” to some form of site-specific relief for successfully proving the township ordinance was unconstitutional. He said municipalities with unconstitutional ordinances on the books have to held responsible, otherwise there is no incentive to challenge them.
“However, Haverford Township continues to argue that billboards are not appropriate anyplace in Haverford Township,” Dunlop said. “There has been no compromise as to any of these locations being appropriate for billboards.”
Haverford Solicitor James Byrne countered that just because BIG succeeded on the constitutional challenge does not mean it is entitled to relief. Rather, he said the Commonwealth Court found the lower court should determine “whether” and “to what extent” BIG “may” be entitled to some alternative relief – all important modifiers for the case at hand.
“The fact that he won doesn’t mean he automatically gets the relief that he wants, or even any other relief it it’s not safe and it’s against the public health, safety and welfare,” said Byrne.
Attorneys representing four resident interveners, the Haverford Zoning Board and Lower Merion, which abuts the locations of two proposed billboards, were also on hand in the packed courtroom.
Bartkowski declined comment to reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday, indicating it must be a “very slow" news day for the decade-old fight to register as noteworthy.
But Haverford Commissioner Andy Lewis and Lower Merion Commissioner V. Scott Zelov both stopped to offer their take on the issue.
“We think that just based on general health, safety and welfare of the community, they’re going to have a serious detrimental impact to the community and the neighborhood – particularly with property values,” said Lewis. “All nine commissioners are resolved to fight this to the end. We’re not going to be bought, we’re not for sale in Haverford Township like other communities have been.”
“Highway sign billboards don’t belong in our suburban communities,” said Zelov. “They don’t belong in Bryn Mawr on Lancaster Avenue where there are neighborhoods, churches, a park, a Children’s Hospital satellite location. Interstate highways? Sure. Suburban communities? No.”
Zelov noted a Change.org petition against the billboards has already netted nearly 4,000 signatures aimed at asking Angelos to side with the township.
“It’s not a safe area to have any kind of additional visual big distraction,” said Lewis. “And I think he’s doing a bait and switch. I think he’s leading with traditional billboards, when in fact he really wants digital. That’s where the real money is, and that is obviously more distracting and it throws off considerable more light pollution.”
Lewis said he expects arguments could go into February or even March, and that he does not expect it to end there. Whichever side loses will almost certainly appeal, he said, but reiterated that the township is in it for the long haul.