Philadelphia suburbs try to detour highway sized billboards

    A growing number of Philadelphia suburbs are facing off against a veteran outdoor advertising entrepreneur. They are battling to keep their communities billboard-free.  

    When R.C. Thompson moved to East Norriton Township four and a half years ago, he had never heard of M.C. Outdoor Advertising. It’s now quite the household name.

    The billboard company wants to erect an electronic, highway-sized sign on West Germantown Pike just down the hill from his home. If approved, illuminated advertisements would stretch across a nearly 700-square-feet space.

    “It will actually shine into our windows, and it won’t get dark in our backyard,” said Thompson.

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    News of the proposed billboard was a major blow to Thompson, a young father with intentions of raising his family in the suburb. He’s not sure now if they’ll stick around.

    “If we see some of the ad content up there that’s just not appropriate for our kids, then we will have to move,” said Thompson.

    Many residents in East Norriton, which sits about 10 miles north of Philadelphia, are also upset. Like Thompson, they’re concerned about content, but also decreasing property values and whether flashing billboards will distract drivers.

    They aren’t shy about expressing their feelings. Long-time resident Michael Votak said at a recent local zoning hearing, “We don’t need this, I certainly don’t want it, and I would assume that the rest of these good people here don’t want it either. So for God’s sake, do whatever it takes to run these folks out of town.”

    Similar outrage has cropped up in more than a dozen suburbs in Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties over the past few years as outdoor advertising companies, all headed by businessman Thaddeus Bartkowski, have looked to set-up signs.

    Abington, Springfield, Haverford and Newtown Square are just a few of the municipalities currently facing off against Bartkowski. Only a few communities have sued. None of those cases has been settled yet. Most are still making their way through municipal proceedings.

    Bartkowski boils down all of the challenges to his company. “The fundamental issue at the root of all of these cases is municipal governments trying to unconstitutionally prohibit our company from conducting our business,” he said.

    Bartkowski says the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled towns cannot prohibit a particular land use when it essentially excludes one type of business.

    “So long as those proposed uses are not injurious to the health, safety and welfare of the community,” said Bartkowski.

    He says it’s unfortunate when towns spend taxpayer dollars to battle his company in court, but he’s not going to back down.

    “We’ll continue to defend our constitutional right by pursuing remedies available to us under the law,” he said.

    Bartkowski adds that billboards will not cause traffic jams and that lease agreements with his company expressly bar offensive advertising.

    A number of the cases involve, at least in part, challenges to municipal zoning codes. Many of those center on how big a sign a town permits. Most municipalities don’t allow highway-sized billboards.

    When it comes to size, state courts have left a lot of grey area.

    “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court effectively split the baby,” said Andrew Bonekemper, a land use attorney at a Montgomery County-based law firm.

    “There’s no specific size that needs to be allowed. The court said you don’t have to necessarily allow the industry standard size billboard, but that you did have to allow billboard advertising,” he said.

    Bonekemper says that makes aesthetic decisions in these cases more difficult.

    “That leaves a big space in between for, unfortunately, a lot of ambiguity for both townships and billboard developers,” said Bonekemper.

    Standing outside of his East Norriton home, R.C. Thompson says he expects residents to fight for as long as it takes. He fears that, if approved, the billboard would open his township up to more advertising companies and ruin its small-town character.

    “Other potential advertising, as well as other potential types of businesses, would see this and see it as an open door to be able to come in and do the same thing. And it turns into a mini-city as opposed to a suburb,” said Thompson.

    Three bills aimed at giving townships greater authority in billboard decisions are sitting in committee in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

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