An artist's rendering for a conceptual sign in King of Prussia by Catalyst Experiential

UPPER MERION — Some call them signs, some call them digital billboards.

Catalyst Experiential, the company that creates mergers of “art, architecture and advertising” calls them monuments that integrate “visual communication technology with local landmarks, infrastructure, and community experience, which encompasses the display as well as the ambient light sensor and other technology.”

Whether or not Upper Merion Township will welcome the monuments in parks and underutilized parcels will not be decided until Nov. 12 when Upper Merion supervisors will again consider the concept after tabling the matter at Tuesday’s meeting.

As evidenced by the mixed reaction from the community at Thursday’s public hearing to amend a pair of ordinances, the controversial displays tend to elicit both support and strong opposition from residents, particularly pertaining to Bob White Park.

With 19 meetings over 19 months with the board of supervisors,  township solicitor, King of Prussia District, public safety director and other committees, the board commended Catalyst for doing its due diligence for the project.

The company was proposing installations at four locations, including Bob White Park, Betzwood Bridge, 795 W. DeKalb Pike and 216 Allendale Road.

The proposed amendment to zoning ordinances to amend the Township’s Zoning Ordinance would permit and “encourage the innovative commercial use of certain lands within the Township” while establishing a township-wide communication platform.

The monument lease agreements would allow, among other things, a  “proposed 30-year lease agreement with Croton Road Upper Merion Land Holdings, LLC for the lease of a portion of the property known as Bob White Park for the exclusive right to construct and maintain an off-premises advertising display subject to the terms and conditions outlined in said lease.”

Following a detailed presentation by Thaddeus Bartkowski, CEO of Catalyst Experiential, several residents voiced their concern about not having been informed about the hearing.

“All of these changes at Bob White Park are being made without any input from the residents,” said one resident. “None of us really knew until tonight what was going on. There’s lots of places to let us know … there’s social media. You could have shared the presentations with us. The workshop meetings used to be televised but they are no longer. That happens behind closed doors and it’s secret. There’s a reason that PennDOT doesn’t allow billboards in recreational zoning, and I’m opposed to changing the zoning. I find these signs distracting and even though they’re on major roadways, the people on those roadways are not township residents. They’re mostly just going through. So those signs don’t necessarily benefit township residents.”

In response to the resident’s suggestion that the displays could lead to commercial development in the park, Township Solicitor Joseph McGrory noted, “The board intends to file a covenant prohibiting any development or commercial use of the parks. Whether they’re zoned or not zoned, the township owns the land so they’re certainly not going to allow any commercial development on the land.”

Regarding the alleged lack of notice, Chairman Bill Jenaway said, “I am disappointed. I thought that Catalyst was reaching out to the neighbors in all of the areas affected. If that didn’t happen, then shame on us for not assuring that that did happen, because we always ask any developer to go talk to neighbors, to get their input.”

Resident Mike Napolitan, a well-known advocate for open space, said that “the giant illuminated billboards will have advertising on them more than not, and if that’s the look that Upper Merion wants, this board obviously thinks that’s appropriate. Regarding the zoning change, can you tell me what the planning commission’s recommendation for the zoning change was?

Napolitan was told that the planning commission, which had vetoed the idea of the displays, 4-1, was concerned that other things could put near the displays.

“That was discussed prior to the discussion of adding the covenant. The planning commission has not seen this since the concept of the covenant was introduced,” chairman Bill Jenaway said.

“I don’t believe changing the property’s commercial to a sign is an appropriate used of this property,” noted Napolitan, who asked how many other companies the board had asked to bid of the project for a sign on public property.

McGrory responded, “There’s no other company that builds signs the way Catalyst does. We have enough experience to know that standard billboard companies do not build signs like what we have in this case.”

In response to Napolitan’s question of why the job was not put out for bid by other companies, McGrory noted, “It’s the style and design of the sign that is the driving force. There are no other companies out there that design signs like this.”

Among the proposed improvements at Bob White Park are new trails, evergreen trees, a picnic pavilion and a rest room for a total cost of $800,000.

Displays would feature township identification and, in some cases, a water feature.

Jenaway maintained that notices concerning the hearings had been mailed out to residents.

“We had a discussion two weeks ago and again last week about notices getting delivered. I know that we sent out 500 because that’s what we were told was going out. I apologize on behalf of the township for your not getting them,” he said.

At that point he asked the board’s interest in continuing the discussion that night, while continuing the hearing, “so that we can ensure that adequate notice is given and make sure that people understand what is being proposed.”

Supervisor Carole Kenney pointed out that the majority of residents who turned out for the meeting were there because of social media, “and not because of the legal notice that we are obliged to give, and because of that I do know that notices were sent out. I’m not making excuses, but we’ve all heard that there are problems with the postal delivery . So I would agree that we continue the discussion tonight and not vote on anything tonight. Assuming hopefully that the proper notices will arrive in your mailboxes between now and the next meeting that we have.”

Resident Tom Gramlich said that the park did not need a picnic pavilion.

“There’s not adequate parking now for softball games, for tennis and for everything else that goes on there. It would have been nice if these people that live (in the area) would have known what your plans were, but nobody came and asked anybody. Nobody knew anything about this.”

A resident asked if the displays will have advertising and was told that they would.

Resident Alysa Silva said she was “leery of changes going forward with ill will from the community. I know that the company has done their due diligence and I believe they would execute their plans well.”

Those plans could be better utilized, she pointed out, in an area other than where the community “has voiced a strong discontent for these plans.”

Monique McLaughlin implored the board to “take some time and listen to residents. I am concerned that the planning commission was 4-0 opposed to this project.”

Theresa Dorazio of King of Prussia said the idea sounded “beautiful. I like the alerts, that people are informed.”

Resident Bob Montemayor said he appreciated that there is revenue to be gained from the displays.

“I grew up in this township and as result of that grew up with the issue of the Valley Forge Golf Course," he said. "Numerous boards of supervisors over the decades were convinced that the courts would always uphold the zoning of the golf course and it would always be protected. The zoning was agricultural, not recreational.

As far back as the 1980s, someone predicted that the course would eventually be developed, Montemayor recalled.

“In 1984 the township had an opportunity to purchase the golf course. However, I couldn’t get more than one other supervisor to go along with that. In 2005 or 2006, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did overturn years and years of protection the township had with the zoning, and we wound up with little Bulgaria," he said. "So, when I heard about this project my concern was in the rezoning of the parks from recreational, I don’t understand why you would change zoning of parks that are not affected by this particular project. My concern isn’t that this board will do anything … nothing may even be done by a future board, but we don’t know. But I do have a concern that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court happens to be an extremely political court. And in the future, if we’ve changed our parks zoning from something other than recreational, I can envision someone with something that they’re like to achieve, approaching the courts to try to get relief. We can’t always account for what the courts do, and for that reason I would caution you to think carefully about changing zoning from recreational in any of our parks.”

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