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October 30, 2012

Peabody council tries to limit billboards

PEABODY — Lawyers, put away your briefcases.

That was the message from the City Council following a vote to rewrite the rules on billboards, a move brought on after multiple lawsuits followed a zoning rewrite in 2011.

But at least one member is wondering if it will all be in vain, as the judgment of local officials is repeatedly overturned by judges and Beacon Hill lawmakers.

“You could have billboard city coming to Peabody,” Council President Jim Liacos said.

Specifically, Liacos points to a recent Superior Court ruling overturning the council’s decision last summer to forbid construction of a billboard on Lowell Street.

Moreover, he noted, the state is currently expected to issue its own regulations on billboards. “It was due in September,” he said. But will those rules be tougher than the ones in Peabody or weaker?

“If we get tough and the state doesn’t,” Liacos asked, “do (our rules) hold up in court?”

Meanwhile, he noted, the prospect of new state rules and the possibility that those who get permits now will be allowed to keep whatever privileges they’ve gained has inspired the flood of requests for billboards.

The rules passed last week would limit billboards to Route 1 and a section of Interstate 95, providing visual relief for those along routes 114 and 128.

“We don’t want billboards in people’s backyards,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt told the council Thursday. In endorsing the change, he noted the need “to make it more restrictive so we have more control.”

The new measure would also establish a dramatic increase in the fees that billboard companies will be required to pay the city.

A billboard permit now costs $10,000, plus $2,000 per year to maintain. After discovering that other communities collect much more, the city has moved to charge $15,000 for “static” billboards — simple posters illuminated by spotlights — and $25,000 for the increasingly popular electronic billboards.

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