by Barbara Sherf

Typically, Springfield Township zoning meetings are held at the Township Building, but the Sept. 8 meeting has been moved to the high school in anticipation of residents’ concerns over a proposal to place two large-sized (48′ x 14′) double-sided digital billboards on Bethlehem Pike.

MC Outdoor LLC, with a postal mailing address in Malvern, filed a petition challenging Springfield Township’s zoning ordinance that disallows billboards anywhere in the township.

Courts have ruled that off-premises signs (among which are billboards) are a constitutionally protected form of commercial speech and townships must permit them. Restricting placement of signs and other reasonable protections are permitted, however.

The township, realizing it must allow billboards somewhere, then revised its zoning ordinance allowing billboards in industrial areas.

The zoning officer denied the request to erect the billboards on the property of Springfield Cleaners, near the intersection of Bethlehem Pike and Haws Lane and by the curve in Bethlehem Pike, at Erdenheim Auto Repair, 601 Bethlehem Pike at Gordon Lane. The Zoning Hearing will discuss options for placing the billboards in other areas in the township, such as the industrial area off of Mermaid Lane or possibly on Route 309.

The Friends of Historic Bethlehem Pike decry billboards as the “antithesis” of the work the group does. Friends member Rob Ryan said the Friends “have worked very hard over the years to promote a historical and walkable Bethlehem Pike.”

In a press release, Flourtown resident and longtime Friends member Jenny French said, “Billboards at once detract from the appearance of our community, fail to accommodate the scale of our current and often historic buildings and intrude upon our privacy and neighborly way of life.”

Springfield Township residents are expected to come out in force for a hearing on proposed digital billboards along Bethlehem Pike.

Details of how much money the property owners would receive have been blacked out of the zoning request sent to the township by MC Outdoor. Thaddeus Bartkowski, of MC Outdoor, reached briefly, did not return phone calls for comment.

The Township has not taken a stand on the proposal, although Board president Roy Harbison expressed his personal views in a letter to the community, saying “the MC Outdoor application is the thorny one.”

Our options” he said, “are as follows:

  • Not fight it and let them build the two billboards on Bethlehem Pike. There seems to be no support for this from the community.
  • Fight them in court as far as possible. If we follow this approach and lose, they will be able to build the two billboards on Bethlehem Pike.
  • Cut a deal with MC Outdoor to allow them to build a billboard or two elsewhere in the Township in return for them not doing anything on Bethlehem Pike.

This analysis,” he added, “is clouded by two variables which are not easy to predict:

  • What are the odds of prevailing if we fight the application through the court system?
  • Is it possible that the two Bethlehem Pike sites are not economically viable and that the applications are just a bargaining chip to get us to help them get to a more viable site”?

According to the Abington Citizens website, MC Outdoor made a similar play in that community.

The applications in Abington were filed by a company named MC Outdoor Advertising,” the site claimed. “Originally, five properties on Old York Road and Huntingdon Pike were chosen, but, like his tactics in other communities, he first presented the worst horror scene, then agreed to ‘moderate’ his offer.

The more ‘moderate’ proposal for Abington lands the giant signs in PB districts like the Willow Grove Mall, the Giant Store in Abington and the old Genuardi’s Center (now doctors’ offices) in Rockledge.”

Harbison noted in his letter:

The Board of Commissioners recognizes that the community would be happy to have no billboards in Springfield, but we are obligated to respect the court decisions and laws of Pennsylvania. We may not have the power to get the outcome we want, but we are committed to the best possible outcome allowable under the law.”

Commissioner Doug Heller, who was involved in The Friends group before being elected to office and who was instrumental in the Black Horse Inn preservation efforts, said he stands behind the Friends.

I am 100 percent opposed to placing billboards anywhere along Bethlehem Pike, and I am willing to put all township resources behind that opposition,” Heller said.

Wyndmoor attorney Peter Amuso will represent the Friends on a pro bono basis.

So far there hasn’t been any court activity, but we are ready to fight this battle,” Amuso said. “There will be no billboards along the historic corridor of Bethlehem Pike The public meeting on the 8th will give the commissioners an idea of how they feel and whether residents want the township to fight the proposal.”

Erdenheim Auto Repair co-owner Jed “Pip” Pippin, who leases his building, is also against the billboards.

We don’t like it,” he said. “There are so many accidents at that curve that to add another distraction is crazy. Plus, it takes away from our signage and our image.”

Kevin Steckler, owner of the Erdenheim Auto Repair building, initially denied he had anything to do with ownership. When confronted with a signed deed for the property, Steckler, of Langniappe Properties, had “no comment” on the proposal.

Attempts to reach Chong Hyong Park, Kyong Ja Park and Eunice Shin, owners of the Springfield Cleaners building, were unsuccessful.

Heller has an extensive website with issues in and around Springfield including the billboard issue at The Sept. 8 meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Springfield High School. Heller said the public was encouraged to attend.”