Entrepreneur Thaddeus Bartkowski III, who has attempted to put up billboards in a number of suburban communities, is now proposing three electronic V-shaped billboards, 12 feet high and 40 feet wide, along Nutt Road in Phoenixville. Some residents who say the billboards would be a visual blight and a dangerous distraction for drivers also say they expect a fight in Chester County Court.
For the past several years, Bartkowski Investment Group has sought to bring billboards to suburban areas, often by mounting legal challenges to municipal zoning codes. He has cited 1960s-era Pennsylvania Supreme Court rulings against "exclusionary zoning" that say municipalities cannot restrict development in ways that keep out specific classes of people or kinds of businesses.
Bartkowski argues that the rulings make local zoning codes that bar or do no expressly permit billboards unconstitutional.
"We should be given the same opportunity" as other businesses to operate, he told The Philadelphia Inquirer ( http://bit.ly/tgiiY7) last week. "We're going to pursue whatever recourse we have."
His efforts—which have included such locales as Abington, Springfield, Concord, and Haverford—began in 2008 in Marple Township, where he proposed putting up seven billboards. The township resisted, and Bartkowski went to Delaware County Court, where the case remains. Also in litigation are his efforts to install outdoor signs in Springfield and Concord Townships. Montgomery County's Lower Merion Township is also in court, trying to remove a billboard owned by a company Bartkowski used to control.
Other billboard proposals are still before local zoning boards; in Haverford Township and Newtown Square, the fight has been going on for more than two years.
Former Marple Township supervisor John Butler said that if Bartkowski prevails, he will be able to "put billboards anywhere, with no control." Attorney Jim Byrne, who represents six municipalities, contends that the signs can be barred as long as the municipalities prove they represent a threat to residents' health, safety, and welfare.
Critics accuse Bartkowski of targeting communities with zoning codes that are vulnerable because they make no provisions for the placement of billboards within their boundaries, for example in industrial areas. He denies such targeting, saying he only tries to put billboards where his advertisers want them. He blamed municipalities and activists for allowing legal battles to drag on rather than reaching a settlement.
Bartkowski points to a deal last summer with Westtown Township in Chester County in which he agreed to change the location of his proposed billboard and add such features as plants and a fence.
"We're an easy group of people to deal with," he said.
Phoenixville's zoning board is slated to decide on the proposed billboard sites by the end of February, and Bartkowski's lawyer has indicated that he will take the case to county court if he is rebuffed. Some residents who came to a recent hearing urged the board to turn the proposal down, including Deborah Wentworth, who called the signs "obscene."
"We need to fight this all the way," she said.
Carol Butler, a billboard opponent with the Pennsylvania Resources Council, wants towns to change their zoning codes to allow limited signage in order to forestall billboard efforts. She also wants state lawmakers to revise zoning statutes to make it easier for municipalities to exclude billboards. Three such bills were introduced this session by suburban Philadelphia lawmakers, but none made it out of committee.
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com