Sign of the times

Woburn turns down billboard proposal - again

By PATRICK BLAIS

MIDDLESEX - The message to the would-be mass messengers is clear: You're not welcome in the City of Woburn.

Earlier this month, an aspiring billboard operator, facing a near certain defeat of a proposal to build a pair of advertisement boards along I-93, yanked a proposal to legalize the construction of digital signs within two exclusive areas along the highway by Woburn's border with Stoneham and Wilmington.

Though the City Council last week allowed Presidential Way petitioner American Tower to withdraw the zoning legislation without prejudice — which preserves the proponent's rights to reintroduce the proposal — the recent retreat of the telecommunications firm marks the second time in as many years that local officials have chased billboard proponents out of City Hall.

"I don't want Woburn to turn into Boston or Las Vegas. We don't like billboards, and we don't need them ," Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately said of the American Tower billboard pitch, when the public hearing on the initiative was opened in April.

Woburn's uncompromising defense of a decades-long ban on billboards stands in stark contrast to Stoneham, which since 2008, has sanctioned the construction of three digital billboards in exchange for the execution of lucrative development agreements worth a combined $7.4 million over the next quarter-century.

Like their neighbors in Woburn, Stonehamites overwhelmingly opposed billboards within their community and defended two attempts between 2005 and 2007 by ClearChannel Outdoor to install a 70-foot tall display off of Montvale Avenue by I-93.

However, in 2008, after ClearChannel promised to enrich town coffers by as much as $1.3 million, the outdoor advertiser prevailed in its third attempt to modify zoning bylaws for two 48-wide digital displays along I-93 northbound.

Though that overlay district near Montvale Avenue was worded to prevent the proliferation of other outdoor signs, billboard operator Logan Communications, dangling an even more lucrative $6.125 million development deal before the townspeople, managed to convince Town Meeting voters in 2015 to authorize yet another billboard display along I-93 southbound.

That third digital billboard, placed right near BJ's Wholesale in Stoneham, was ultimately erected right in Woburn's backyard. Stoneham officials ultimately used some of the billboard pact's revenue streams to hire a new addictions specialist and restore Stoneham's defunct recreation department, which had been eliminated nearly a decade earlier due to a budget crisis.

As Stoneham residents wavered in their opposition to billboards, the Town of Reading refused to set aside its zoning principals in 2014, when a billboard operator sought permission to erect a digital display by a Mobil Gas Station overlooking I-93.

As with Stoneham, the developer, hoping to build the billboard right on the Woburn line near Washington Street, pledged some $50,000 a year in "host payments" to the Town of Reading for the initiative. Though Reading's Board of Selectmen did consider the proposal, it ultimately nixed the agreement in the face of overwhelming public opposition.

Months later, Reading Town Meeting voters made clear their feelings on billboards by enacting a town-wide zoning ban on such outdoor advertisements.

Short-sighted?

Woburn officials, who praised Reading for holding the line on billboards, have long contended the financial rewards from such structures are outweighed by the blight they cause and their potential for encouraging distracted driving.

Though admitting billboards are considered a political third-rail in Woburn, Northern Bank & Trust President and CEO James Awn first attempted to roll back Woburn's ban on billboards nearly two years ago.

In the winter of 2017, Mawn learned the MBTA, contending it was exempt from local zoning ordinances, was petitioning the state's Outdoor Advertising Board for permission to erect a 95-foot tall billboard on commuter rail land situated in front of the local bank's new flagship headquarters by Route 128 and Mishawum Road.

Mawn, in an attempt to derail that petition, asked Woburn's City Council to legalize digital signs in the community's Mishawum Station Transit-Oriented Overlay District.

In doing so, Northern Bank officials hoped to construct its own billboard, which if allowed, would effectively block the MBTA's sign, as state and federal regulations prohibit the placement of such highway displays within 1,000 feet of one another.

However, city officials, leery of setting a precedent that would allow the proliferation of billboards, made clear their opposition. Months later, the local bank withdrew the petition.

With that sign becoming operational earlier this year, American Tower, a telecommunications giant that posted gross 2018 revenues of $7.4 billion, decided to test the billboard waters yet again this spring by seeking permission to erect two 80-foot tall displays by its Wilmington line headquarters and Unicorn Park by I-93 northbound and the Stoneham line.

According to local attorney Joseph Tarby, representing the Presidential Way firm, his clients were willing to offer the same type of lucrative financial packages offered by billboard operators in neighboring Stoneham in exchange for the development rights.

Tarby also insisted that both signs, to be situated on Woburn's northern and southern borders and a significant distance away from residential neighborhoods, would have a negligible impact on the community.

"For all practical purposes, it's the last property in Woburn before you hit the Wilmington line. We don't believe it has any adverse impacts on parties in the area," the lawyer said of the Presidential Way location. "There are also only five-parcels that abut I-93 near Unicorn Park. We think allowing billboards in these two zoning districts is an effective way to deal with the issue in a selective and sensitive way."

During an introductory hearing on the proposal in April, Woburn's Planning Board, acting in advisory capacity to the City Council, made it clear they hadn't changed their minds about billboards.

"We've spent a lot of time not obstructing the view of the city with signs…I can't see anybody convincing me that this brings value to anybody other than the people putting them up," Planning Board Chairman David Edmonds remarked, before he and his colleagues unanimously recommended against the petition.

American Tower representative Brandon Ruotolo, citing state and federal highway studies, this spring tried to refute the notion that billboards encourage distracted driving.

However, in a move that backfired, the company executive later revealed that his firm, which specializes in the ownership, lease, and operation of cell owers, intends to revolutionize the billboard industry by creating the nation's first "interactive" outdoor advertisement.

"A cell tower is a lot like an outdoor advertising structure in that it has to be wirelessly enabled, but within the industry, no one has developed a solution where you can move information from a billboard to a user," he said during last month's Planning Board discussions.

"Let's say you're driving through the city and you see a message from a local bakery. [Under our idea], if you opted into an app, [the billboard] pushes a message to your phone that says, 'Hey, there's a location here in Woburn that serves warm bagels," he added.

Planning Board members were far from impressed by the interactive billboard concept.

In fact, according to veteran Planner Robert Doherty, the idea that the zoning change could facilitate even more instances of distracted driving behavior made him even more determined to vote against the proposal.

"Is that with a driver?" inquired Doherty, asking with whom the sign would be interacting. "In a time when we're really having a problem with distractions on the road, don't you see this as a safety issue?"

"The ultimate design would never get rolled out unless they figure out a safe way to do it. Our billboard itself would not be interactive. It would be a static display," Ruotolo responded.

"But that's what you're looking at down the road," Doherty retorted. "And based on everything you guys have done, it's probably not that far away. I do a lot of driving down the road, and I have a huge problem with [billboards already]. If I look at one, that means for two seconds, I'm taking my eyes off the road."

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