As she drives through her quiet, darkened neighborhood, Bobbi Jo Broomell sees a glow brightening the night sky. As she gets closer to the source, it flashes brighter, blinks, then changes brilliant colors.
For Broomell, a drive along the residential Farmhouse Road in Downingtown is like entering "another galaxy."
One she would rather avoid.
She and other residents in her Chester County neighborhood want the borough to find ways to obscure their view of the digital billboard that has been flashing along the heavily traveled Route 30 Bypass since April 5.
Similar billboards, which have been gaining popularity since the beginning of the millennium, are lighting up roadways across the country - 6,400 at last count. Of those, 379 line state roads in Pennsylvania, but they evidently haven't gained as much traction in the Garden State, with only five along the New Jersey Turnpike, according to state officials.
The industry hails the billboards as vehicles for "high-impact" exposure. It trumpets their versatility: Several advertisers can share the space as the message can rotate every few seconds. They have been enlisted for public-service announcements and even in the hunt for fugitives.
But at ground level, not everyone is liking the show, and the digital signs have stirred controversy nationwide. The International Dark-Sky Association has raised concerns about the proliferation of signs that it says are further dimming the view of the universe at night.
In Downingtown, the light from the 672-square-foot display screen shines into some residents' homes along North Lake Drive and Farmhouse, tree-lined, pastoral streets of modest houses. One resident complains she feels like she's living near a drive-in movie; another couple says they installed black curtains on their 2-year-old's bedroom window, lest the lights keep her awake; a developer who plans to build 70 townhomes in the area says the billboard outshines the Las Vegas strip. Real estate agents say homes caught in the glow could lose value.
The residents recently took their complaints to the borough council, and one council member says she is sorry she voted to approve it. State Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) says he is drafting legislation to establish guidelines and give towns more of a say in where the billboards are sited.
Mary Tracy, executive director of Scenic Philadelphia, which has opposed digital displays in the city, said residents in surrounding towns have reached out to her for help fighting billboards that shine into their homes.
"Your room will be red, then it will be blue, then it will be yellow, whatever the color of the moment is," Tracy said. "That is really an issue of quality of sleep and quality of life."
The billboard industry says that, for businesses, the primary color is green.
Digital billboards cut production costs for businesses. They also better target customers because businesses can customize the billboards to fit the time of day, the day of the week, weather conditions, and traffic patterns. A 24-hour diner, for instance, can advertise its coffee in the morning and then invite late-night snackers to visit at 11 p.m.
"From the advertisers' standpoint, this flexibility is a new opportunity to reach customers with messages that can be updated, changed and cycled in quick fashion," said Ken Klein, an executive vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.
Industry officials also say the billboards have public benefit.
Emergency services agencies can use them to warn drivers about dangerous weather.
Law enforcement officers use them to search for kidnapped children and wanted fugitives. In late 2014, the FBI said its National Digital Billboard Initiative included more than 5,200 billboards nationwide and resulted in the capture of more than 50 people.
In Downingtown, the two-sided billboard will have a direct cash benefit. Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, the Newtown Square-based company that owns the billboard, has agreed to pay Downingtown $25,000 and also provide $25,000 worth of advertising to the borough annually.
Catalyst Outdoor has agreed to work with an engineering firm to limit residents' view, borough officials said. The billboard is visible to more neighbors than the company estimated when the council approved the sign. The company had no comment.
Residents such as Bobbi Jo Broomell are frustrated.
Paul and Kelly Bane, who live a few hundred feet away from the billboard, noticed the sign the day it was turned on. As they put their daughter, Paige, to bed around 7:30 p.m., the sign's light shone into her room. They installed black-out curtains.
Since then, Paul, who works at a software company, and Kelly, a teacher, have been asking the borough for glare relief.
"It's a reminder every day when you come home from work you've got more work to do," he said.
The billboards have raised questions about traffic safety, and have generated several, generally inconclusive studies. But research has shown drivers do take longer looks at digital billboards.
"They're not safe because the whole purpose of these things is to distract people," said James Byrne, solicitor for Haverford Township, Delaware County, where proposed billboards remain a subject of litigation. Residents in other towns, including Phoenixville and Lower Oxford, in Chester County, have fought against digital billboards.
Conversely, the Bartkowski Investment Group, another billboard company with the same owner as Catalyst Outdoor, has sued towns for not permitting the signs.
The state regulates billboards, and approval is subject to local zoning ordinances.
Ann Feldman, a Downingtown council member, said she regrets voting to approve the digital billboard, but the plans the advertising company presented to the council complied with borough zoning.
"Our ordinances are just deficient because most municipalities have never had to deal with this before," she said.
"Quick, quick, quick - get your zoning up to date," she advised other towns.