SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 30, 2012

Peabody council tries to limit billboards

By Alan Burke Staff writer
The Salem News

---- — 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.

What’s more, Peabody will require the same payment each year that the billboard stands.

“It will go into effect once the mayor signs it,” City Clerk Tim Spanos said yesterday. He expects to present the new measure to the mayor shortly.

Companies previously thwarted in their attempts to erect billboards can now resubmit requests for special permits at the Nov. 8 council meeting.

At last week’s meeting, Councilor Barry Sinewitz raised the possibility of limiting the total number of billboards allowed in Peabody. The mayor replied, “I think the state is going to take care of that.”

Bettencourt expects the state to require a minimum distance of 2,000 feet between billboards, effectively limiting their number.

Sinewitz, an outspoken critic of billboards, conceded that the new zoning “certainly has some merit.” But he worried that the state law would not serve to cut down the number of billboards.

“There should be a number,” he said, while predicting, “We’re going to end up in court.”

Liacos believes that 2,000 feet is not very far in terms of billboards.

Sinewitz also worried about the content of the signs. “Legs and Eggs,” he said. “Remember?” That was a temporary billboard on Route 1 featuring a nearly nude woman. It was briefly erected at the Cabaret Lounge as scenery for the recent Adam Sandler movie “That’s My Boy.”

Though stressing he does not want to censor, Sinewitz worried, “I want to know what’s going up on a billboard.”

Liacos agrees, suggesting it would be preferable to forbid billboard signs touting, for example, the Golden Banana strip club. “But I don’t know how you enforce it. Isn’t it freedom of speech?”

Speaking at last week’s meeting, Liacos raised the possibility that the new zoning could face the same fate as the Lowell Street decision.

“I would like to know if what we’re doing is proper,” he told City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski.

“You’re not only doing the right thing legally,” Smerczynski replied. “You’re doing the right thing for the city of Peabody.”