Haverford Township and a billboard developer began sparring Wednesday in Delaware County Court, opening a trial over a controversial billboard proposal that has dragged on for more than a decade.
Ordered by Commonwealth Court to reconsider a narrow part of the case after an earlier appeal, Judge Spiros E. Angelos will consider whether Haverford should allow a modified proposal for slightly smaller billboards at the sites on Lancaster Avenue and West Chester Pike and whether they still would pose safety hazards.
In opening statements, an attorney for Bartkowski Investment Group, which wants to erect four billboards on the two roads, said the firm was “entitled to” some type of approval for the sites based on the earlier court decision.
The Haverford Township solicitor countered that the company was “not automatically” guaranteed anything, citing the Commonwealth Court’s opinion, and argued the new proposal for slightly smaller billboards would still jeopardize safety and welfare in the township.
The saga began in 2009, when Newtown Square-based Bartkowski Investment Group first proposed to build the billboards. In 2014, Commonwealth Court upheld the township’s original rejection of the proposal, but ruled unconstitutional its ordinance banning billboards in the entire municipality. It sent the case back to Delaware County for a judge to decide whether a modified proposal might be allowed.
Officials and residents in Haverford and Lower Merion Townships, where the billboards would be visible from the road and residences, have argued the signs would cause traffic safety issues, light pollution, decreased home values, and blight. The firm, run by president Thaddeus Bartkowski, says the billboards won’t cause any problems and will offer advertising opportunities in a populous area.
The trial had been set to start in Media on Tuesday but was postponed because the courtroom was too small to accommodate all the spectators who showed up. Angelos was unable to get a larger courtroom Wednesday but started the trial anyway, and more than 55 people squeezed into the room to watch. .
Bartkowski Investment Group’s new proposal for the billboards, located at 2040 and 1157 West Chester Pike in the township’s Havertown section and at 658 and 600 West Lancaster Ave. in the Bryn Mawr section, lowered their heights by five to eight feet. The highest of the four would be nearly 73 feet in the air and the lowest just above 46 feet. The largest signage area would be almost 554 square feet and the smallest would be 432 square feet, according to a statement from the township solicitor, James Byrne.
Robert Gundlach, attorney for Bartkowski, argued for approval for the proposal, saying there should be a “reward … for this successful litigant who proved” the township’s ordinance banning billboards was unconstitutional.
“Municipalities have to be responsible for keeping unconstitutional ordinances on the books,” Gundlach said. He asked the judge to find that “none of these billboard signs, as they have been reduced in size and height, will be injurious to the public health, safety, and welfare.”
Haverford officials disagree. Byrne said the sites chosen for the signs remain inappropriate — and said Bartkowski’s firm had brought in experts in previous court proceedings to argue that the billboards “needed to be at least 672 square feet” to be safe.
“With the real people here that are involved, it’s inappropriate to put these I-95-size billboards looming over the backyards,” said Michael G. Crotty, lawyer for a group of opposed residents.
Testifying on Wednesday, Bartkowski said he chose the sites because of their zoning and proximity to businesses; he said the sites get between 34,000 and 71,000 people driving by per day. He has nearly 30-year leases on all four properties.
“We very much are” a local business, Bartkowski told the judge, appearing in a suit and orange tie. “There’s not a single sign we construct where I don’t have input into the size, shape, and ultimate” placement and design, he said.
His company has mounted more than 80 signs, in about three dozen municipalities, mostly in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Bartkowski said.
A second day of testimony was scheduled for Thursday; the trial will then resume at a date yet to be determined, likely in February, township officials said.
Michelle Collier, one of the Haverford residents represented by Crotty and whose home is behind one proposed billboard site, said she was nervous for the trial because the issue “greatly affects” the township.