By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — It will be clearly visible to nearby residents and sit alongside Route 128.
So why has the City Council approved a new, 50-foot-high, 14-by-48-foot billboard on the property of Northshore Mall?
The approval came Tuesday night in the wake of new zoning regulations proposed by Mayor Ted Bettencourt, regulations that were designed specifically to prevent construction of billboards that residents could see from their homes or that would be located anywhere other than Route 1 and Interstate 95.
Councilor Anne Manning-Martin tried to block the billboard, citing exactly those points.
“I’m not in favor of this,” she said. “This is not the area we designated. ... This is right across the street from Terrace Estates. ... This will be a beacon that they could stare at. I don’t think they will enjoy that.”
Last summer, the courts overturned a City Council decision to reject a billboard between Route 1 and I-95, but Manning-Martin stressed that the judge in that case went to Lowell Street and saw that there were other billboards in the vicinity.
“If we were to deny this one and the judge drives down to that area, I don’t think he would see similar signs,” she said.
All this happens as the state is promulgating new regulations for billboards, a fact that has spurred multiple requests for signs. Moreover, there are concerns that Peabody, which is intersected by three major highways, is in danger of being overwhelmed by intrusive billboards.
Several councilors, including Bob Driscoll and Barry Sinewitz, have spoken out about billboards, with Sinewitz expressing concern over what messages they might carry and Driscoll warning against a Saugus-like explosion of roadside ads and “visual pollution.”
Nevertheless, Manning-Martin was unable to win a single vote to her side.
It was Driscoll who cited the importance of accommodating the Northshore Mall, one of the city’s largest employers and taxpayers. Not cited was the fact that under new rules, the city will collect $15,000 per year for each “static” billboard and $25,000 for electronic boards.
Driscoll explained his conversion, citing a recent meeting with the mall’s general manager, Mark Whiting.
“I got a much better perspective on the mall,” Driscoll said. “My attitude concerning billboards began to change. ... I think this is going to give a boost to the community.”
A Thanksgiving Day talk with his children had a further impact.
“They implied my attitude might be stuck in the 1930s,” he joked.
Finally, he described talking with the city’s lawyers regarding the prospects of forbidding the billboard.
“They assured me the city wouldn’t have a leg to stand on,” he said.
No residents appeared at the meeting to protest the new billboard.
“I haven’t gotten one call,” Driscoll said.
Councilor Arthur Athas suggested that this was a unique matter, given the new zoning rules: “This is probably the last time we’re going to face this situation.”
Council President Jim Liacos later explained the technical reason that this billboard was allowed despite the new regulations. The request for a permit was submitted prior to the change in zoning, he said. And although other companies in the same situation agreed to follow the new regulations, no agreement was reached with the Northshore Mall.
In an interview, Whiting described the billboard as two-sided, designed to be seen in both the northbound and southbound lanes of Route 128. It will be located in an area between the mall buildings and Sports Medicine North.
Surprisingly, the sign won’t necessarily advertise the Northshore Mall. Rather, it will be operated by Total Outdoor Corp., an outdoor advertising company at the Cummings Center in Beverly. In other words, Total Outdoor will pay rent to the mall, as well as $15,000 per year to the city, for its static display.
As far as the advertising on it, Whiting said, “I have the right of first refusal.”
Farther down the road and past the Lahey North building, a sign advertising the mall will remain.
“We don’t consider that a billboard,” Whiting said. “That’s just a mall pylon sign.” The mall also advertises on billboards at other locations.
“The mall has more employees coming to it every day than any other structure in the city,” Whiting said.
It amounts to 3,000 people per week. Tremendous amounts have been spent recently in expanding the mall, he added, which benefits the city at a time when “tax revenues are hard to come by.”