It has been more than a decade since Gail Lovett and some neighbors in Haverford Township first opposed a proposal for billboards along Lancaster Avenue. They were worried about traffic safety, light pollution, home values, and the view from their windows.
And they still are.
As billboard proposals have come and gone in other towns, Haverford has been fighting one battle since 2009, when Bartkowski Investment Group sought to put the mega-signs up on two thoroughfares in the heart of the Main Line.
Two court appeals and 27 township hearings later, the saga over the four billboards proposed for Lancaster Avenue and West Chester Pike has been reawakened. A trial beginning Tuesday is expected to address whether the township must let the company proceed with alternative or modified billboards.
“It just seems like it’s never-ending,” said Lovett, a 26-year homeowner who, like an estimated 75 of her neighbors in the township’s Bryn Mawr section, would be able to see the advertising from her windows. One map drawn by the township indicated the boards would be visible from the majority of properties within its borders.
In Haverford, the township first rejected the firm’s billboard proposal in 2012. A county judge upheld that decision, and Bartkowski Investment Group appealed to Commonwealth Court, arguing that the zoning ordinance Haverford used to reject its proposal was unconstitutional. In 2014, that court agreed the proposal was inappropriate for the locations but sent the case back to Delaware County with instructions for the lower court to rule on whether the township must approve “some elements” of the original proposal.
It has taken five years for the remanded case to reach trial — and if the losing party appeals, Judge Spiros Angelos’ ruling won’t end the saga.
Both sides will present witnesses and evidence starting Tuesday. The township plans to argue that even smaller billboards would not be safe, while Bartkowski Investment Group says it should be allowed to build them.
The case is limited to four locations where Bartkowski leased property, so the judge will most likely be considering changes to the billboards’ size or shape rather than location changes.
The latest proposal calls for roughly 550-square-foot signs that would stand more than 50 to 70 feet high, said Township Solicitor Jim Byrne, in the Bryn Mawr and Havertown sections of the township.
Two along Lancaster Avenue near Dayton Road would bookend a stretch that includes an Acme market and a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia satellite facility. One on West Chester Pike would sit above a car wash near Darby Creek, just before ramps linking to I-476. The other on that road would sit near Washington Avenue, next to a check-cashing shop that neighbors Trinity Lutheran Church.
“In a place where you have children walking across the street, people riding bicycles, pedestrians …. there’s not enough time to react safely and read a billboard,” said Byrne, who has worked on the case since its start more than a decade ago. "You drive down Lancaster — just imagine closing your eyes for two seconds.”
In a statement from a spokesperson, the Bartkowski Investment Group told The Inquirer the Commonwealth Court’s decision means the company is “entitled to construct” the billboards.
“The Township has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money by refusing to comply with the decision of the court and has been unwilling to engage in any meaningful dialogue toward a sensible resolution," the statement said. "We’d continue to prefer to work together, but that requires a willingness to engage in dialogue.”
After a few years’ lull in the legal processes, Haverford officials and residents organized this month to reengage resistance. An anti-billboard petition Lovett created is circulating among opponents; residents are mobilizing to pack the Media courtroom on Tuesday.
“This could change our quality of life and the safety of our residents,” said Haverford Commissioner Steve D’Emilio, whose constituents would live within view of the billboards on West Chester Pike. “It’s a big-business ploy to put something in that they know that the community doesn’t want. They’re trying to act like this is some sort of compromise, and it isn’t.”
The township’s board of commissioners unanimously opposes the project and has vowed to “spend whatever it takes” to continue fighting the Philadelphia-area investment group, run by outdoor advertising businessman Thaddeus Bartkowski. Board president Andy Lewis said they were “prepared to fight this for another 20 years if we have to.”
Thaddeus Bartkowski declined to comment beyond the company’s statement.
Under a newer company, Catalyst Experiential LLC, Bartkowski has proposed to develop civic projects using revenue from digital billboards included in the project design — a dog park and an emergency-services building in Bensalem, an amphitheater in Coatesville, and an emergency-services building in Mount Laurel, all flanked by the electronic signs. The Bartkowski spokesperson would not discuss the status of those projects.
The firm’s statement said it has repeatedly attempted to discuss the billboard design and sizing with Haverford officials. “We have a vast portfolio of potential designs, ranging from traditional monopoles and extending to clocktowers, community landmarks, amphitheaters, and even dog parks,” it said.
Haverford residents aren’t interested in those designs — at least not according to the vocal crowd of nearly 200 who came to a Tuesday evening meeting to ask township officials how to stop the billboard developer.
“We really just want to keep them out of the neighborhood. It’s not a highway," said Terri Lynn Alizzi, 59, who has lived in Haverford her entire life. "It’s a neighborhood. It’s our neighborhood.”
Gathered in a fire hall, the audience jeered at a screen-projected illustration of what one billboard might look like above West Chester Pike.
“How does that make you feel?” asked Commissioner Steve D’Emilio.
“Horrible!” “Sick!” people called out. Others booed.
The stretch of West Chester Pike is so heavily traveled that the township recently got aid from PennDot to expand the entrance to 476, D’Emilio said. He and others are worried that West Chester Pike, which is often crossed by children and seniors going to the Manoa Shopping Center, will become more dangerous if motorists’ eyes are being drawn to billboards.
His colleagues have the same worries about Lancaster Avenue, with its shopping centers and busy motor and foot traffic. Neighboring Lower Merion officials are concerned, too; that township filed as an intervenor in the lawsuit. As many as 150 people attended a Jan. 9 meeting led by the solicitor and commissioners in that area of town, Lovett said.
Residents believe their home values will drop dramatically if the billboards are erected. They also fear light pollution, particularly if the signs ever became digital, view and light blocking, and change to local aesthetic. Worries about what would happen if one of the signs fell over ran through community meetings on Thursday and Tuesday.