Mount Laurel was once celebrated for winning a landmark billboard-banishing legal victory.
Now the South Jersey township has embraced digital advertising signs in a deal that buys the township a new emergency medical services center to replace one that state officials are reportedly forcing it to abandon.
The outdoor advertising company Catalyst Experiential LLC has agreed to build Mount Laurel a $3.8 million emergency building at no cost to the township. In return, the township is permitting the Newtown Square company to install two big digital advertising signs along busy roads, as well as on the facade of the emergency center itself.
Officials have granted the three sites special redevelopment status under a state law aimed at battling blight, a move that sidesteps Mount Laurel’s normal zoning process. The township’s planning board is scheduled to hold a final vote naming Catalyst as the sites’ developer Thursday evening.
The effort is a seeming reversal for a township that fought for five years with another billboard company, Interstate Outdoor Advertising LP, which had wanted to build an advertising sign in Mount Laurel alongside I-295.
Mount Laurel prevailed in a 2013 appeals court decision over Interstate’s claim that its free-speech rights were being violated by the township’s ban on ads along the highway. The township later won an award for standing up to the company from Scenic America, a national nonprofit concerned with protecting the scenic environment.
Mount Laurel resident Jeanne Andersen, a former member of the township’s zoning board, said she’s disappointed to see leaders embrace Catalyst’s signs, which often consist of irregularly shaped digital screens set over landscaped plots with features such as artificial waterfalls.
“I’ve seen pictures from other nearby towns of what this company has put up and it just, to me, is hideous,” she said. “It looks like stuff you see in Las Vegas, not Mount Laurel.”
Mount Laurel Mayor Kurt Folcher said the plan was a “win-win” for the township and for Catalyst.
“What we’re doing through this effort is getting a new EMS building without spending a dime,” he said.
Township officials pin their need for a new emergency services building on a dispute with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s “Green Acres" open-space program that’s forcing it off the Church Street property where its current facility stands, between Laurel Acres Park and Mill Run Park.
The five-acre plot was mistakenly added to the state’s open-space inventory when it was donated to the township in 1983, Mount Laurel said in a statement. In 2016, state staffers notified the township that it was violating state open-space rules and, two years later, threatened fines if the violation wasn’t fixed.
Mount Laurel was given a choice, it said: Acquire some 40 acres of contiguous property for recreation or conservation use at a cost of $4 million — which the town said would result in a property-tax increase — or relocate the emergency building.
Township officials asked state representatives at a meeting last November to correct the mistaken open-space-registry listing, but the request was rejected, according to the statement.
An Environmental Protection Department spokesperson had no immediate comment.
Around the time of the November meeting, Catalyst founder Thaddeus Bartkowski introduced township officials to his then-new company, which develops civic and recreational structures in exchange for the right to sell ads on digital screens at the buildings.
He has since announced deals for a dog park and an emergency services building in Bensalem, Bucks County, and a public amphitheater in Coatesville, Chester County, although he has yet to break ground on any of those projects.
Mount Laurel’s leaders decided to have Bartkowski build the township a new medical-services building to settle their dispute with the state, which "had put us behind the eight-ball,” Folcher said.
Catalyst and the township’s emergency-services chief agreed on a site for the new medical station at 1112 Route 73, southeast of the New Jersey Turnpike and across the street from a large Wawa filling station. Bartkowski said he plans a 7,600-square-foot building with four ambulance bays, separate male and female dormitories, a laundry room, and other conveniences.
One of the sites chosen for a standalone sign installation, meanwhile, is at the edge of a wooded plot at the corner of Route 38 and Midlantic Drive, between Marter Avenue and Mount Laurel Road. The other sign is planned between I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike, just beyond a small enclave of homes east of Church Street.
Mount Laurel’s council began the process of having those sites declared “areas in need of redevelopment or rehabilitation" under a state anti-blight statute in April, when it instructed the township’s planning board to complete a formal study of the locations.
The state law permits the circumvention of some local land-use rules — such as Mount Laurel’s billboard ban — in designated areas and makes it easier for governments to force the sale of private property flagged for redevelopment.
Folcher said the properties rightly qualify as redevelopment sites under the state law because they wouldn’t have attracted investment without the township’s intervention. The statute is also being deployed in Mount Laurel to spur development in the township’s Rancocas Woods crafts and shopping district.
Bartkowski said he is in talks with three other New Jersey municipalities about their using the redevelopment law for sign installations or civic buildings with digital screens, but he did not name them.
Karen Cohen, who serves as a Mount Laurel public library trustee and in other volunteer posts, said she wishes the digital displays and display-bearing emergency station had gone through the city’s formal zoning process, which would have allowed clearer opportunities for community engagement.
She said she feared the emergency-station site was selected for the visibility of its sign along busy Route 73, rather than its proximity to neighborhoods where it’s most needed. She’s particularly concerned about residents of the Holiday Village retirement community, she said.
The community is about 1.5 miles from the current emergency center on Church Street, but around four miles over oft-busy roads from the new site. .
Cohen said she also worries that all three sets of new digital signs will distract drivers, resulting in accidents. When the appeals court ruled in Mount Laurel’s favor against Interstate Outdoor in 2013, she recalled, it said the low rate of accidents along I-295 in the township may be attributable to the absence of billboards there.
“The EMS station," she said, "will be used to help people in accidents caused by the signs that were used to help pay for the EMS station.”