SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

November 13, 2012

Worries over billboards in Peabody persist

By Alan Burke Staff writer
The Salem News

---- — PEABODY — And the city of Peabody said, “Give us a sign.”

As to what’s going to be on the sign — you’ll have to take that on faith.

That’s the conclusion as the city has begun to approve roadside billboards in the wake of a zoning change that many hope will provide more control over where the big signs go and how obtrusive they are.

Two Route 1 billboards were approved at Thursday’s City Council meeting, including one on the southbound lane at the jughandle and the other farther up the road on the northbound side and described as being visible from Interstate 95. Both are said to be “static” billboards, meaning they aren’t electronic, so the images don’t change and are merely illuminated with spotlights.

Councilor Barry Sinewitz seemed uneasy with the decision, and he mostly worried over the content of these billboards.

“Shouldn’t the city know what’s going up there?” he asked. “I don’t really care what’s going up on these signs. But the city has the right to know.”

Sinewitz points to a crude sign that was erected temporarily at the Route 1 Cabaret strip club as part of the making of the Adam Sandler movie “That’s My Boy.”

Sinewitz suggested that sign companies ought to disclose the content of billboards prior to installing them.

“I make a motion that when they’re going to the building inspector to sign off that you tell us what’s going on that sign,” he told David Ankeles, the lawyer for Mansfield Outdoor Advertising Corp., which was seeking special permits for the two signs. “The building inspector should know.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that,” Ankeles replied.

Council President Jim Liacos said that the zoning change had already been debated and voted on and that Sinewitz’s motion seemed to ask for a change in the nature of the special permit. “You will have to do it outside this process.” As to the principle of disclosing what’s going up on the sign, he told Sinewitz, “I don’t necessarily disagree with you.”

“The protection we have in this society is defined by the obscenity laws,” City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski said. He noted that his office would act if those laws were violated.

Others indicated that informing the building inspector of each change would be impractical — particularly in an era when some billboards are electronic and change frequently.

“The purpose of that sign is advertising,” said Councilor Dave Gravel, who cited his own experience in the field. “We don’t go tell the building inspector every time we want to advertise.”

All this sign language is likely inspired by changes in the regulations for billboards due on the state level. Liacos previously noted that advertisers are eager to locate in Peabody, with its multitude of major highways, and eager to do it soon so that conditions are established prior to the new rules from Beacon Hill.

Further, the city rewrote its rules after initial efforts to forbid some billboards last summer brought a lawsuit and a defeat in court.

The content of the signs wasn’t the only objection from Sinewitz.

“It’s not the safest intersection,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a distraction on the jughandle when everyone is going in a different direction.”

The billboards are slated to be 14 by 48 feet in size. More requests for special permits for new billboards are expected.