SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 24, 2013

Digital billboards coming to Peabody

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Get ready for the look of digital Peabody.

Cove Outdoor Advertising has entered the competition to erect the first full-sized digital billboard in Peabody. This one, which hasn’t yet gone before the City Council, would be double-sided, 14 by 48 feet, and slated for Jubilee Drive at a spot visible to drivers on Route 95 traveling in both directions. If approved, it will be the third — two more are already permitted for Route 1 but not yet constructed.

Moreover, according to City Councilor Dave Gamache, whose ward contains all three sites, virtually every billboard in Peabody can potentially be transformed into a digital display — which is usually powered by LED lights — without permission needed from the city.

“All they would have to do is just file for it,” he said.

For his part, Gamache has no problem with the high-tech signs. “I think digital is better than the static billboards. They’re more appealing; they’re cleaner.”

For the billboard owner, they have obvious advantages. They won’t require a crew to change the message — that can be done electronically. Lawyer David Ankeles, who represents Cove, pointed out that the company is donating up to 25 percent of the billboard space to the community. In other words, Peabody can use it to instantly announce events, like the International Festival, or warn of a traffic accident or alert drivers that a snow emergency is in effect.

Ankeles added that the Jubilee Drive billboard, located near the Extended Stay Hotel, “is in a perfect place.” Since no residence is near it, “it’s what I think everyone would want.”

Additionally, it complies with a recent Peabody bylaw limiting billboards to Route 1 and Route 95. The billboard is expected to run “continuously.”

Another advantage for the city is the fee for installing a digital billboard — $25,000 with another $25,000 due annually to the city, he said. The fee for a static billboard is $15,000. State law limits the number of electronic billboards by mandating they be 1,000 feet apart; static billboards require 500 feet apart.

The ability to quickly change the message on a digital billboard has raised the concerns of some council members, who decry what they regard as a tasteless digital sign already advertising on Route 114, featuring foot treatments through what some have described as a “throbbing toe” image. In the past, Councilor Barry Sinewitz has raised the possibility that without input from the city, even worse could be posted on a digital billboard.

“I want to know what’s going up on a billboard,” he told his colleagues last October.

For his part, Ankeles believes that, notwithstanding the First Amendment protection of free speech, the city could move against a billboard company that featured a tasteless or offensive message. He stressed that his client had no intention of doing such a thing.

Former Mayor Mike Bonfanti expressed dismay at the coming electronic transformation.

“No one likes the digital billboards,” he said. “They’re distracting. And so blinding. ... They aren’t what the public really wants,” he said.

“I don’t like any billboards,” said Ruth Mowder of the Peabody Arts Association, who was asked to comment on their aesthetic impact. “I don’t think they’re going to be pleasing to the eye.” They dangerously distract drivers, she added.

And she worries that there might be worse to come.

“Next thing, there’ll be moving pictures,” she said.

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