Delco Article – March 30, 2011

Cartoon by Calvin Rankin, used by permission

 

They’ve won a billboard battle, but not the war

 

Opponents of billboards in selected parts of Delaware County shouldn’t pop those champagne corks just yet.

True, they saw their first victory March 24 when the Springfield Zoning Board voted 4-0 to deny an application from the Bartkowski Investment Group to install six 672-square-foot billboards along Baltimore Pike. Their decision came after 15 hearings and 23 months of testimony.

Boiled down, all those hearings and all that testimony is really about whose rights are being violated the most. Residents say the signs infringe on their communities as blight and eyesores, creating traffic problems and other safety issues, as well as generating declining property values.

Billboard owners say the townships are intentionally challenging them by writing ordinances that specifically keep billboards out of their towns. BIG representatives argued in the Springfield case that their applications for billboards was a “validity challenge to the township zoning code … written to insure a prohibition on billboards.” “What was crafted so well is actually the flaw in the ordinance and it is invalid and unconstitutional,” commented attorney Carl Primavera, representing BIG. Springfield Solicitor Jim Byrne countered, “The only rights violated are the constitutional rights of the residents of Springfield.”

Similar scenarios are playing out in zoning challenges in Haverford, Marple, Morton, Newtown and Concord.

Since part of a zoning board’s mission is to take into account how an application impacts the residents in its town, there is a chance that other zoning boards will also vote down the billboard applications.

But it doesn’t end there. Bartkowski will no doubt challenge the ruling of the local zoning boards in court and it is in court, historically, that these types of applications have been approved. Judges have ruled in the past that townships cannot pass ordinances that prohibit against a particular type of use, like installing billboards, because such ordinances discriminate.

This time, though, it could go differently. Communities, from grass roots citizens to township officials, are better organized and better funded as they prepare to fight against billboards on the legal premise that they endanger the health, safety and welfare of their communities. Recently, a federal judge ruled in a different case that such an argument was a legitimate consideration.

So residents may have won the first salvo and perhaps a crack has appeared in the billboard defense. But this issue isn’t resolved yet.

One thing is certain. Regardless of the outcome, the consequences will be felt for a long time to come.