, Salem, MA

September 27, 2013

Council votes billboard pause

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — This city’s battle of the billboards continues. But even as the City Council, last night, announced a rear-guard action to temporarily halt billboard growth, members also learned that the city itself appears ready to plunge into the lucrative business.

A moratorium on accepting applications for billboards was passed 9 to 2, as Councilor Anne Manning-Martin raised questions regarding a state Department of Transportation traffic study on a Route 1 billboard.

“Wouldn’t we want to know what their concerns are?” she asked. “Why they’re requiring this traffic study? I want to know, as do my colleagues.”

The moratorium would stand until the traffic study or the reason for it can be obtained. On the other hand, it can’t go into effect without the signature of Mayor Ted Bettencourt, according to City Clerk Tim Spanos.

Meanwhile, during an earlier meeting of the Industrial and Community Development subcommittee, City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski told the board that Peabody was advertising for billboard companies to put their signs on city land.

The return would be substantial, he said, as some have made offers above $300,000. The fee for putting up the billboard, assuming it was digital, would be an additional $25,000 annually.

Some councilors saw this as a benefit. Arthur Athas, loath to discourage would-be buyers, urged the board to wait on any moratorium.

“Are you suggesting we wait until we receive harmful information when it’s too late?” asked Manning-Martin.

“By the time it comes before us, we’d have the information,” Athas said.

Dave Gamache also voted against the moratorium.

The council has already established zoning regulations that limit billboards to Route 95 and Route 1. It was a concern that the wording of the zoning and the hefty $25,000 to $15,000 annual fee might invite lawsuit that brought Smerczynski to the meeting. Recent litigation has raised the possibility that some might sue over the annual fee, as it can’t be linked to any purpose, like administering the billboards, he said.

“What I’m asking you to do is essentially to improve the language,” he said.

In a new form, the wording would connect billboards to a loss of property values. It could also raise questions of public-safety costs.

But member Dave Gravel complained that he hadn’t gotten any early notice of this proposal.

“We didn’t receive anything ... not one piece of paper,” he said. The use of city land for billboards was a surprise, too.

Additionally, he decried the tendency to rush.

“The last time I voted on something I hadn’t seen — I have to look at it every time I go down Lowell Street.” He was referring to the Total Outdoor billboard that was erected in the wrong place.

The board voted to delay a decision on the proposed change in language.