, Salem, MA

March 16, 2013

Council rejects proposed billboard settlement

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — The city will not sign off on leaving a towering pole and billboard looming over Lowell Street.

On Thursday, the City Council unanimously rejected an offer by Total Outdoor Corp. of Beverly to mitigate the impact of the sign by extending an adjacent building, thereby allowing its walls to shield the view of the bottom portion of the pole.

The matter is expected to be back in court on Monday at 11 a.m., when the city will argue that the sign was constructed in the wrong place, near the front of the property rather than at the back.

“We won’t settle for anything but moving it to the back of the building,” City Council President Tom Gould said. He noted that City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski had told the council that he “thinks we have a great case, and we’re going to fight it to the end.”

The council and Smerczynski met in a closed-door session for nearly an hour on Thursday night as the settlement offer was discussed.

Dismantling the sign and reconstructing it at the back of the building — which now houses a Subway eatery — would cost Total Outdoor $250,000, according to their lawyer, Jack Keilty. Nevertheless, city officials believe that is precisely where the court directed that the pole be placed.

When it went up in January, the billboard galvanized residents and officials in opposition, resulting in a cease-and-desist order from Mayor Ted Bettencourt. But that was only one episode in a very convoluted history.

Last summer, the City Council rejected the proposal to construct the billboard outright. That decision was overturned by Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead, who noted that there already are obtrusive billboards in the area — notably the garish Bonkers sign across the street.

Whitehead’s ruling inspired the council to rewrite the city’s zoning regulations regarding billboards, virtually restricting billboards to Route 1 and Interstate 95.

City officials contend that the sign was erected in the wrong spot and that the plan presented to the judge indicated that it should be in the backyard, at some distance from Lowell Street and nearby residences.

Keilty maintains that the council was initially shown a plan that called for the pole to be located just about where it is now — though he concedes that they rejected that plan.

Gould, on the other hand, denies that the council ever considered a pole alongside the house.

“What he (Keilty) showed us was the pole set back (behind the building),” he said.