Chester County residents, digital-billboard firm square off over trees

The owners of a two-sided, 672-square-foot digital billboard on the Route 30 Bypass said they would plant an evergreen buffer to block light from the sign shining into homes. But Downingtown residents and the firm, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, are at a deadlock over planting the trees.

When the annual foliage show comes to an end and the leaves start falling from the trees, some Chester County residents fear they will get a clearer view of something they would rather not see: A brilliant, two-sided, 672-square-foot digital billboard.

And now, Downingtown residents and the company that owns the billboard on the Route 30 Bypass, Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, are at a deadlock over trees.

Will Catalyst plant an evergreen buffer to try to block light from shining into homes?

"The ball is definitely in Catalyst's court," said Phil Dague, a Downingtown Borough Council member.

"It's up to them," Patrick Wolfington, a partner at Catalyst, said of Downingtown.

Dague said the issue would be discussed at Wednesday's council meeting.

Wolfington and other company officials told residents at a council meeting in June that the company would plant 20-foot evergreen trees that would grow to more than 40 feet to obscure the 14-by-48-foot sign. Four months later, the fall planting season is here but the trees are not.

At the meeting in June, some residents and Borough Council members said the plan to plant 35 arborvitae trees between the billboard and houses would not completely block the light and that the company should do more to shield homeowners from the sign. Residents have been fighting the digital billboard since it was illuminated April 5.

Company officials said that they wanted to work with the borough to address residents' concerns but that they were under no obligation to plant the trees, which would cost roughly $50,000 on top of the money spent to develop the planting plan.

"Without the full support of the borough saying, 'Yes, this is something we want you to do,' there's no point in us doing it," Wolfington said.

To residents who live near the billboard, the lack of trees represents another promise unkept. Residents and borough officials have said Catalyst, based in Newtown Square, originally told them homeowners would not be able to see the billboard's light from their houses.

Catalyst representatives said in June the effect on residents was "unforeseen."

Compared to static signs, electronic billboards are more affordable for businesses, more versatile, and more useful for public-service announcements, the advertising industry says. Environmental groups and other opponents have said the digital signs contribute to light pollution and distract drivers, and could lower home values.

Trees block some of the light, but the leaves are starting to fall, and residents are not looking forward to the impending improved views of their glowing neighbor.

"It is likely that Borough Council will have to make the decision to plant trees on our own," Dague said. "Obviously, we'd rather get Catalyst to do it."