Residents urge Lower Oxford supervisors not to amend billboard zoning regulations
● By Steven Hoffman
More than 50 people turned out at a special hearing on Dec. 10 to let the Lower Oxford Township supervisors know that they are not in favor of proposed changes to the zoning regulations for billboards in the township.
The proposed ordinance changes would allow for a large electronic billboard—up to 960 square feet—on commercially zoned property along Route 1. Most of the residents who spoke said that the were concerned that the large electronic billboards could disturb the rural character of the township, create an unnecessary nuisance for nearby residents, and distract motorists as they travel on Route 1.
After about 90 minutes of opinion-sharing by residents, the supervisors—chairman Ken Hershey, Ronald Kepler, and Joel Brown—voted to table the issue to the next meeting, which will take place on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015.
Township solicitor Winifred Sebastian began the hearing by explaining some of the changes that would take effect if the amendments are approved. The township’s existing billboard ordinance allows for billboards on Route 1, but not electronic ones that are automatic and changeable. In addition to establishing a maximum size that would be permissible, the new regulations also establishes the maximum visible-light intensity, at a level of 7500 nits, and restricts the speed of image changes to six seconds. There could be no flashing, sudden bursts of light or animation or noise. The billboard would have to have a 20-foot setback from Route 1 and the location would have to be a minimum of 1,000 feet from a residential district. The billboard could also not be closer than 500 feet to a limited access highway exit or entryway. Lower Oxford would have the opportunity to advertise its own announcements on the billboard. The billboard would be required to be turned off between midnight and 6 a.m.
Sebastian emphasized that the matter under consideration during the hearing was only the amending of zoning regulations, and the supervisors were not considering the application to install a billboard by a particular developer. Sebastian explained that a company wanting to put up a billboard would still need to go through a conditional-use process.
However, a developer, Catalyst Outdoor, has already expressed interest in putting up a double-sided digital billboard on the north side of Route 1 near the intersection with Route 10, and the ordinance changes would clear the way for that to happen.
While a few people from outside the immediate area said that there were benefits to having an electronic billboard on Route 1, an overwhelming majority of the people in attendance were there to express their opposition to the changes.
“I hope we don’t do this,” said township resident Jim Donahue.
“I just don’t understand your thinking,” Jane Downs told the supervisors.
Many residents expressed their concerns that the size and brightness of the billboard would diminish what is special about the rural area. The 960-square-foot limit on the size is twice as big as an electronic billboard on Route 202, they pointed out, and brighter than billboards in larger areas.
“We are not West Chester,” said Lower Oxford resident David Jenkins. “We are not the I-95 corridor. We are a rural area.”
Several residents said that they were worried that the new regulations would allow for other large billboards in the township that would ruin the bucolic scenery. Responding to a question posed by one of the residents, Sebastian said that if the supervisors approved the ordinance changes there could be one billboard on one side of Route 1 and up to three on the other side.
Other residents talked about how the electronic billboards could hinder motorists on Route 1.
Karen Pattinson said that a sign at Lincoln University that was much smaller than the one proposed still bothered her eyes when she drove by it. She said that the larger billboard would be worse.
Noting that the purpose of the electronic billboards is to attract the attention of motorists, John Foreman said that having them placed where drivers are trying to merge with other traffic presents a hazard.
“I have a safety concern,” he said. “What happens when there is a fatal accident? Let your conscience be your guide on this.”
“We can’t text in a car,” noted Oxford Borough resident Peggy Ann Russell. “Why would be allowed to read a sign when we are in a car?”
John Theilacker, who serves as the Brandywine Conservancy’s associate director of the Environmental Management Center, asked the Lower Oxford supervisors to reconsider the proposed ordinance. He said that the billboard would be too large to be reasonable for the area, and added that the ordinance is also inconsistent with the regional comprehensive plan that the township participated in with other municipalities in southern Chester County.
East Nottingham Township resident David Stewart said that approving the amendments and allowing such large billboards in the township would be a “legacy vote” that would have long-lasting effects on the township.
“Do you want this as your legacy?” he asked the supervisors rhetorically.
David Ross, a Nottingham resident, touched on all three of the major concerns—the loss of the rural character of the area, the possibility that the billboards might distract drivers, and the harsh glare that nearby residents might not be able to escape—during his allotted three minutes of comment time. Ross summed up his thoughts by saying that when the costs are weighed against the benefits, the proposed changes should be rejected.
Anita Bower, a resident of Nottingham, presented the board of supervisors with a petition signed by approximately 300 people who oppose the ordinance amendments.
Lower Oxford Township resident Julie Brady was one of several people who said that they were concerned that the township wouldn’t have control over the content on the billboards.
“It worries me that we have no control over the content,” Brady said. “It’s also a monstrosity. I think it’s too large. I don’t want to see it from my home and I will. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community. I don’t think it’s what small-town America wants.”
Once the public comment portion of the hearing was over, the supervisors resumed their regular meeting and opted to table the billboard ordinance issue until January without discussion.
The supervisors seemed to want to allay some of the fears about the issues that were raised. Hershey explained that township officials did contact the State Police and were told that electronic billboards are not known to present significant safety risks.
And Kepler said that even if the ordinance changes are approved, the township would still be able to work out the exact details of a proposed billboard with the developer through the conditional-use process.
Signatures for the petition in opposition to the zoning amendments are still being collected on change.org.
In other business at the meeting, the Lower Oxford supervisors unanimously adopted the 2015 budgets. The general fund budget is balanced without a tax increase so the millage rate will remain at one-quarter of a mill for next year.
Hershey noted that the township is using revenues generated from the Oxford Commons to make a one-time $1,000 donation to the Oxford Public Library. Last year, the Union Fire Company No. 1 in Oxford was the recipient of the donation.
The supervisors have been considering a dog-tethering ordinance that would prohibit tying a dog up outside for more than an hour when temperatures are below 32 degrees or above 90 degrees. However, Kepler said the township isn’t moving forward with the ordinance.
“At this time, I don’t think Lower Oxford has the ability to police this so I am not in favor of it,” Kepler said.
The Lower Oxford Township Board of Supervisors will meet next on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015 for the reorganization meeting.