SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

July 10, 2013

Council must decide on Total Outdoor billboard

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Expect a surprise ending in the saga of the Total Outdoor Corp. billboard on Lowell Street.

That’s the prediction of ward Councilor Dave Gamache as the City Council prepares to accept an advisory tomorrow from city solicitor Michael Smerczynski. It notes that Judge Howard Whitehead has ruled the city should entertain a new special permit request and consider allowing the billboard company to relocate their advertising structure. And the judge adds that the council needs to “complete its proceedings ... relative to (Total Outdoor’s) modified plan by September 3, 2013.”

Alternatively, Smerczynski said, the city could appeal Whitehead’s ruling up until July 25.

In addition to moving the pole, Total Outdoor wants to reconfigure the shape of the two billboards slated to go on top of the structure. Councilors, up to now, have shown little inclination to accept anything other than the permanent removal of the pole.

“The ball is in our court now,” Gamache said.

Gamache said he worries that the city will find itself facing another lawsuit it won’t win if it should deny another special permit.

“I think it is not going to go the way people think. ... We’ll wait and see what Mike Smerczynski tells us we legally have the right to do.”

“The decision will rest with us,” said Mayor Ted Bettencourt, who issued a cease-and-desist order when it was discovered last winter that the Total Outdoor pole had been put in the wrong place.

Not commenting directly on Gamache’s view, the mayor said, “We will have to be very careful. I’m supportive of what the council will decide.”

The issue is likely to be discussed at tomorrow’s regular council meeting, Gamache said. With only one additional meeting scheduled for the summer, on Aug. 22, the council will be pressed to act quickly in order to meet the Sept. 3 deadline.

Total Outdoor first proposed constructing its billboard more than a year ago, requesting a special permit from the council. It was rejected, getting a majority but not a two-thirds vote. Subsequently, the company sued the city. Superior Court Judge Whitehead overruled the council, giving the Beverly-based billboard company permission to construct the 92-foot pole. When that was completed, however, its size and location inspired outrage from city officials and residents.

Complications ensued for Total Outdoor when it was determined that they hadn’t placed the pole where they’d told the judge they intended to put it. It is close to Lowell Street instead of behind the Subway store and down an incline. Convinced that the company had deliberately placed the pole in the wrong place to gain an advantage for their advertising platform, city officials, from the mayor on down, rejected settlement offers.

“I was against it from the beginning,” said ward Councilor Bob Driscoll. “I thought it was too big and unsightly.”

Unlike Gamache, he believes that sentiment against the billboard remains strong, bolstered by the shock of just how big it appeared once it was completed.

“I would think it’s going to fail again.”

Staff writer Alan Burke can be reached at aburke@salemnews.com.