Borough preps for billboard battle

Phoenixville will likely wind up in court in its fight to keep three 40-foot-wide electronic signs out of town.

Since 2008, Thaddeus J. Bartkowski III's billboard wars have flared in more than a dozen communities in Delaware and Montgomery counties.

Now he is moving on Phoenixville, with the first shot fired toward the Chester County borough's historic downtown.

If Bartkowski prevails, three electronic, V-shaped billboards, 12 feet high and 40 feet wide, will go up along Nutt Road, a major thoroughfare. They will rise 43 feet above a borough that has struggled to reinvent itself, filling the void of industrial decline with quaint shops, good restaurants, and gussied-up rowhouses.

Not surprisingly, residents are in high dudgeon. The billboards, they say, would be a visual blight and a dangerous distraction for drivers.

The town is gearing up for what promises to be a long and costly fight likely to land in Chester County Court.

For the billboard purveyor with a novel strategy for placing outdoor ads, courtrooms are familiar battlegrounds.

In tonier Pennsylvania suburbs in particular, Bartkowski has tried to erect billboards by mounting legal challenges to municipal zoning codes.

He has used as ammunition Pennsylvania Supreme Court rulings dating to the 1960s that outlaw "exclusionary zoning," typically in regard to low- and moderate-income housing. Municipalities may not restrict development in ways that keep out specific classes of people or kinds of businesses.

Bartkowski argues that billboards are covered under those decisions, and that local zoning codes that prohibit - or do not explicitly permit - them are unconstitutional.

"We should be given the same opportunity" as other businesses to operate, he said in an interview last week.

"We're going to pursue whatever recourse we have."

Bartkowski has been in the outdoor-advertising business in the region for more than a decade. In 2001, he was involved in a wall wrap - a Philly.com banner on Suburban Station - declared illegal by the city Department of Licenses and Inspections. (Philly.com no longer uses a Bartkowksi-controlled company for advertising.)

His march through the Pennsylvania suburbs has taken him to Abington, Springfield, Concord, and Haverford, to name a few locales. It began in 2008 in Marple Township, where he proposed putting up seven billboards along West Chester Pike and Sproul Road.

Marple tried to block him. Bartkowski turned to Delaware County Court.

And the parties are still there - with company. His attempts to install his outdoor signs in Springfield and Concord Townships also are in litigation.

In Montgomery County, Lower Merion Township is in court, trying to remove a billboard owned by a company Bartkowski used to control.

No court decisions have been rendered yet in any of the cases.

If Bartkowski wins, he'll be able to "put billboards anywhere, with no control," said John Butler, a former Marple supervisor who worked on the township's strategy in facing down Bartkowski.

Most of Bartkowski's challenges are still playing out before local zoning boards; in Haverford Township and Newtown Square, he's been fighting for more than two years.

Attorney Jim Byrne, Bartkowski's most notable opponent, represents six municipalities in their fight against the billboards. He contends they can bar the signs as long as the municipalities prove they represent a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of residents by, say, distracting drivers.

Bartkowski's critics say he homes in on communities with zoning codes that are vulnerable to attack because they make no provisions for the placement of billboards within their boundaries. Those that do - for instance, allowing them in industrial areas - save themselves costly litigation, with an uncertain outcome.

In an interview in Wayne near his office, Bartkowski denied such targeting, saying he tries only to put billboards in places where his advertisers want to be.

He blamed municipalities and a handful of activists for allowing the legal battles to drag on rather than reaching a settlement with him.

Bartkowski pointed to a deal sealed over the summer with Westtown Township - his first foray into Chester County - in which he agreed to change the location of his proposed billboard and add ornamental features such as plants and a fence.

"We're an easy group of people to deal with," he said.

When Bartkowski was asked whether he had ever put up a billboard without at least mounting a zoning challenge first, he was silent for several moments before citing two - both in Middlesex, in North Jersey.

Unlike in Westtown, Phoenixville is girding for battle.

The zoning board is due to render a decision on the proposed billboard sites by the end of February. If Bartkowski is rebuffed, his lawyer has indicated, he'll take the case to county court.

Residents who turned out for a recent hearing seemed ready to rumble.

Deborah Wentworth called on the zoning board to resist the "absolutely huge" and "obscene" signs and said, "We need to fight this all the way."

Allison Geiger added, "I don't need another distraction" on Nutt Road.

For Carol Butler, an anti-billboard activist with the Pennsylvania Resources Council, Bartkowski's moves into Westtown and Phoenixville are the latest indication that "he's going to go the path of least resistance" as he expands his business into previously billboard-free areas.

Butler's group is trying to get towns to preempt Bartkowski by changing their zoning codes to allow limited signage.

"We're spreading throughout [the region], trying to be supportive," she said, acknowledging that Chester County hadn't been on her radar.

Butler also wants the state legislature to step in and revise zoning statutes to make it easier for municipalities to exclude billboards - effectively disarming Bartkowski.

Three such bills were introduced this session, all by local lawmakers: Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), Rep. William Adolph Jr. (R., Delaware), and Rep. Bernard O'Neill (R., Bucks).

None has made it out of committee.

Contact staff writer Anthony Campisi at 215-854-5015, acampisi@phillynews.com, or @campisia on Twitter.