PEABODY — Some people are beginning to think those enormous billboards going up all over Peabody might be flashing dollar signs.
But if they are a potential windfall, it’s one being approached with misgivings.
“I grew up in West Saugus,” City Councilor Bob Driscoll said at a recent meeting. “We used to have the corner on visual pollution. Saugus was always recognized as the most visually polluted town in Massachusetts. And we’re getting that way.”
Mayor Ted Bettencourt sees the downside of signs — big signs, little signs, flashing signs, electronic signs. And he concedes that Peabody is uniquely attractive to billboard companies because so many major highways run through it.
But the mayor is supporting a change in zoning that would both control the spread of billboards and turn them to the city’s advantage.
“It’s a tool we can use to potentially raise some money,” he said.
Currently, it costs $10,000 for a billboard permit and $2,000 per year to keep it. A little research revealed that other municipalities earn far more. Thus, the new proposal is slated to dramatically up the cost of the permit to $15,000 for a “static” billboard (the old-fashioned type) and $25,000 for an electronic billboard.
Each year, the permit holder will be required to pay the same amount to keep the billboard.
The need to change the zoning came when the courts overturned a City Council vote last summer to prohibit construction of a billboard off Lowell Street near Interstate 95. That decision may have long-term implications.
“We have a whole bunch of these before us,” Councilor Barry Osborne said. “It’s a big issue.”
He sees the new zoning giving the city more clout — the ability to say no to some signs and still prevail in court.
Additionally, under the new regime, it would be more difficult to construct a billboard on streets like Route 114, for example. Instead, the often-massive signs would go “on our highways,” according to Bettencourt, “on Route 1 and Route 95 where there’s no residential impact. ... I’m not in favor of any sign where a resident can look out their window and see it.”
This won’t always be possible, he said, but it remains a goal of the zoning change.
In September, the new zoning easily won preliminary approval from the council. Public hearings are now slated for the Planning Board, which meets Thursday, and the council at a later date.
Approval might have something to do with the money. In promoting this, Bettencourt stressed the need for additional “streams of income” for a city currently rebuilding a middle school and renovating its downtown.
Despite their vote, city councilors approached the measure with mixed feelings. Councilor Barry Sinewitz showed some distaste for the notion of making money off the signs.
“Now I understand why we want the billboards,” he exclaimed sarcastically. “With $25,000 for one, $15,000 for another.”
He recalled quitting the city’s Sign Review Board in disgust some years ago after the appearance of a “throbbing toe sign” on Route 114, a billboard he’d been unable to stop.
Several councilors cited the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, promoted by the wife of President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson. The measure banned billboards and signs along federal highways. One unintended consequence of the act, however, is the practice of putting up massive poles on adjacent private land to support huge signs that can still be seen from the highway.
Councilor Anne Manning-Martin expressed a resolve to apply the intent of the Highway Beautification Act to the city of Peabody and to “keep our city as beautiful as Lady Bird Johnson intended.”
Driscoll expressed some doubts over why so many people want to put up signs at all, insisting that he doesn’t look at them and doesn’t know what they’re selling.
“I don’t think they’re as great a marketing tool as people think they are,” he said.
The change in zoning aimed at billboards is part of a larger effort to address legal difficulties arising from last year’s revamping of the city’s zoning. Several changes are now in the offing in response to lawsuits and potential lawsuits.