by Barbara Sherf
Springfield Township residents opposed to the installation of digital billboards anywhere in their community vented their feelings at a special commissioners meeting on Sept. 8.
The meeting, called to give commissioners guidance on the issue, drew more than 100 residents to Springfield High School.
Township solicitor Sean Kilkenny told the audience that MC Outdoor advertising has been challenging zoning laws in municipalities throughout Pennsylvania that excluded billboards. Courts have ruled that off-premises signs (among which are billboards) are a constitutionally protected form of commercial speech, and townships must permit them.
Where signs can be erected, however, and other reasonable protections can be regulated by municipalities.
“That happened here on a Friday afternoon last November and by Monday the commissioners passed an ordinance allowing billboards in certain industrial zones,” Kilkenny said, adding that because MC had already applied to install billboards in a non-industrial area, their application proceeded.
MC Outdoor Advertising partner Thaddeus Bartkowski made a 40-minute presentation on the history of the firm’s various proposals.
He indicated that initially the company considered installing billboards along the portion of Route 309 that goes through the township, but that they couldn’t find a strip that was 500-feet away from an on/off ramp or far enough away from residential areas. They then looked at an area near Paper Mill Road and Stenton Avenue, near open space owned by the Natural Lands Trust.
He noted, however, that “it was deemed inappropriate due to the amount of vehicular traffic at that intersection.”
Then MC Outdoor researched Ridge Pike near Manor Road in the panhandle section of the township, but it was deemed too close to a residential area, That was when they turned to placing two signs on Bethlehem Pike, one near the Springfield Cleaners at Haws Lane and one behind and reaching above Erdenheim Auto Repair near Gordon Road, facing the historic Wheel Pump Inn.
Township commissioners rejected the Bethlehem Pike proposal. At that point, MC went back to look at Route 309 and found a stretch near La Salle College High School, on what is known as the Wood tract, to erect one 1200-square-foot digital sign that would be turned off between 11 pm and 6 am.
“We ‘get it’ about placing the signs on Bethlehem Pike,” Bartkowski told the audience.
“I understand where everyone is coming from, and that is why I am trying to create an alternative. We went through the last 12 months doing studies and spending considerable time and resources to come up with an acceptable alternative, and we believe that is on 309.”
Township Commissioner Robert E. Gillies, Jr., was skeptical of Bartkowski’s motives.
“You came at us with putting two signs on Bethlehem Pike for the shock factor and to make the 309 option more palatable,” Gillies told Bartkowski. “Why didn’t you do your homework at first and find that stretch of 309 that would work? You didn’t do your homework.”
Bartkowski responded that his firm had done its homework, but that it was based on inaccurate information provided by PennDOT.
“Your comment could not be any more inaccurate,” he responded to Gillies.
Commissioner Doug Heller (who has produced an extensive website about the issue at http://hellerspringfield.com/issues/billboards.htm) asked attorney Gregg Adelman, representing MC Outdoor Advertising, about the history of litigation in townships where MC Outdoor has proposed to erect billboards.
“At this time we are engaged in litigation in 10 municipalities in the Southeastern region – Montgomery County, Chester County and Delaware County,“ Adelman said. “In Delaware County we’ve had 17 to 20 meetings, and they have spent $200,000 to $250,000 in legal expenses. That challenge is now in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. We have reached settlements in other areas within six months, with the municipality spending $10,000 to $15,000 in legal fees.”
That statement outraged Wyndmoor resident and attorney Holly Kisailus, who was the first to speak during the public comment period.
“It is clear that he (Bartkowski) didn’t take into account what we are so proud of in this area,” she said, noting that she had moved from Wilkes-Barre in 2003 to “a sleepy community that reminded me of my hometown.” “I realize that you and MC Outdoor are seeking to out-lawyer us with your legal team,” Kisailus said. “I don’t know why it is you would seek a sleepy township to erect your Las Vegas signs. You are sadly mistaken if you think residents of Springfield Township will be scared off with your lawyering. We have a nice feel to this community, and your Vegas style signs don’t jive with it,” she said while the audience erupted in applause.
Bartkowski said he drove through the township twice a day when he attended La Salle College High School and that he had a good feel for the community. Bartkowski then received a host of snickers and murmurs when he couldn’t remember the name of the Black Horse Inn, a prominent structure along the Pike that the township and community saved from being demolished, and is in its final phase of fundraising.
On behalf of the Friends of Historic Bethlehem Pike, Franklin Avenue resident Rob Ryan read the mission statement and pointed out that “these billboards are not in compliance with any of those principles.”
“It is out of scale and out of line with what we have worked for these past seven, eight, nine years with promoting a walk-able, historic community,” he added.
On a personal note, he said he was concerned with the proposed Haws Lane billboard “flashing into my backyard.”
“And we are working with the owners of the former Wheel Pump Inn to help them sell that property,” he said. “That will be very difficult with a flashing sign right outside. Plus, there is no way you can drive down Bethlehem Pike and not see how such a billboard wouldn’t distract a driver.”
“This has to be obvious to anyone,” he said, noting the extreme curve in the road in the 600 block of Bethlehem Pike.
Several residents, such as Mickey Howell, who live near the Route 309 site expressed concern about the impact on their development.
“This is an infringement on us,” she told Bartkowski. “It will affect our quality of life and our property values. Anything that shines into my house and my bedroom and my window is unacceptable and something that you need to reconsider.”
Jim Meyer, President of the Eagleview Condominium Association near Ridge Pike and Manor Road spoke on behalf of his community.
“My constituents are opposed to the proposal. It would be out of character for the area, and we are 100 percent opposed to the possibility of that happening,” Meyers said.
Asked if he would be opposed to billboards in any residential community in Springfield, he responded, “Personally, I would be compassionate to other residents facing this as well.”
The Route 309 alternative is zoned residential – not industrial – so it would need a change in zoning.
“How that happens (regarding the change in zoning) has not been determined,” Bartkowski responded.
Resident Bob Cope talked about MC Outdoors’ attempts to divide the community.
“We, as a community, are as united as anyone will be on an issue,” he said. “As soon as we start talking about the subtleties of where to put these billboards, we start tearing the township apart. We must keep an issue like this from tearing us apart.”
Commissioner James E. Dailey repeatedly asked Bartkowski why his firm’s proposal was submitted with redacted documents where the monetary gain to the property owners for the space to erect the billboards was blacked out.
“I hope we see what those numbers are at the zoning hearing,” he said.
Dailey also questioned the motives behind MC Outdoor for submitting a proposed settlement agreement that was emailed to board members.
“Who asked for this”? he asked. “The residents near 309 were not privy to this agreement. Where did it come from”?
Adelman responded that it was an agreement that had been used in other municipalities “Nobody asked for that agreement,” he said. “We offered it.”
“The Friends,” Daily responded, “have entered an appearance at the zoning hearing and they are a party to this. Would they not be part of a settlement agreement? I don’t know how you offered a settlement that has been used in the past when we are still in this quagmire.”
It was announced that the matter would be heard at a Zoning Hearing at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 19, at the Springfield Township Building. According to the Springfield Township website, however, “The petition of MC Outdoor regarding the placement of billboards at 601 Bethlehem Pike and 1020 Bethlehem Pike has been continued at the applicant’s request.”