WOBURN — Though individual members voiced near unanimous opposition to the idea, the City Council as a whole recently refused to immediately dispose of a proposed zoning change that would allow the construction of two digital billboards along I-93.
During their most recent gathering in City Hall, the aldermen roundly criticized legislation proposed by Presidential Way's American Tower Corp., which wants to erect two 80-foot tall advertisement boards along I-93 by Unicorn Park and Montvale Avenue and on the northwest corner of its 15-acre headquarters by the Wilmington line.
However, with Ward 6 Alderman Edward Tedesco absent during the recent meeting, the council found itself in a 4-to-4 deadlock over whether to reject the petition after a single evening of deliberations. Those advocating to vote immediately against the zoning change included Ward 1 Alderman Joanne Campbell, Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, and Alderman at-large Robert Ferullo.
Blocking that camp's attempts to close the public hearing were City Council President Michael Anderson, Ward 3 Alderman Mark Gaffney, Ward 7 Alderman Lindsay Higgins, and Alderman at-large Michael Concannon.
Though nearly all of those officials spoke out against the legalization of billboards, they contended American Tower was due the same process considerations given to virtually all who appear before the council. As a matter of practice, the aldermen, after opening up a public hearing on a petition, refer virtually every zoning and special permit request to committee for further scrutiny.
"I opposed this [kind of swift action] the last time it came up," said Higgins, referencing the council's 7-to-2 vote in March to reject a Crest View Plaza parking petition without first referring the matter to committee. "We need to put this to committee and discuss the issues a little further. I don't think denying this tonight does anybody justice."
Though blocking the swift defeat of the zoning change, Higgins and her three supporters were in-turn prevented in a 4-to-4 vote from referring the matter to the council's Ordinance Committee.
According to Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, she feared that the near unanimous opposition to the billboard proposal would suddenly evaporate in the committee setting.
Unlike gatherings of the full council, which are televised and generally well-attended by citizens, committee-level review sessions tend to generate a smaller public following. Both types of council gatherings are always open to the public.
"What happens when this type of thing goes to committee, there are all sorts of more aggressive lobbying efforts that happen," Mercer-Bruen said.
As a result, the billboard matter was simply tabled. Under those circumstances, the matter will be discussed as "old business" at each council meeting moving forward, until a majority of the council votes to either dispose of the petition or refer it to committee.
Based within a three-story office building at 10 Presidential Way, American Tower is one of the world's largest wireless communication infrastructure operators. The publicly-held corporation, which has historically specialized in the ownership of cell towers, posted revenues of $6.6 billion in 2017.
In total, the company owns thousands of cell towers and similar installations that are situated on some 40,000 parcels of land across the United States.
According to local attorney Joseph Tarby, representing the Presidential Way tech company, his client wants to erect one billboard on the northern edge of its 15-acre office park, which overlooks I-93 southbound just by the Wilmington line.
A second sign would be placed along I-93 northbound near Montvale Avenue by Unicorn Park.
Presently, billboards are prohibited in the entirety of Woburn. The new ordinance would lift that ban by legalizing digital signs, which cannot exceed 700 square feet, along a 1,950-foot long stretch of the IP-2 district between Wilmington and Commerce Way — right by American Tower's headquarters.
A second billboard district would be created along a 2,850-foot length of I-93 northbound by Montvale Avenue in the office park by I-93 or OP-93 zoning district.
Based upon the zoning language, no sign could stand taller than 80-feet, and signs must be situated at least 2,500 feet apart (exceeding state and federal standards that require a 1,000 foot distance between billboards along highways).
An earlier version of the legislation, which was rejected by the Planning Board earlier this month, had called for a 600 foot spacing between signs. However, by increasing Woburn's threshold to 2,500 feet, the proposed ordinance would only allow for two new billboards to be situated along I-93.
"It would limit the addition of billboards [in Woburn] to one on each side of the highway," Tarby explained.
According to American Tower representative Brandon Ruotolo, with the wireless communication industry undergoing sweeping changes as part of the planned switch to ultra-fast 5G networks, his firm has also expanded into new markets, including into the data center and fiber optic industries.
Many technology experts, referring to the hardware needed to unroll the so-called "Internet-of-Things," have predicted wireless communication firms will rely less on traditional cell towers in the years to come, as 5G networks require the vast proliferation of smaller antenna arrays.
Already, American Tower has begun making that transition towards focusing on small-cell canister antennas and similar hardware like distributed antenna systems. As part of that expansion, Ruotolo explained the firm has also taken an interest in the advertising and billboard industry.
Apparently learning from the pitch he made earlier this month to the Planning Board, Ruotolo made no mention of American Tower's interests in creating an "interactive" billboard that would be capable of pushing advertisements directly to consumers through their cell-phones as they drove by the digital signs.
His reference to that research and development work backfired during the Planning Board discussions, when the city officials blasted the concept as being patently unsafe.
However, the council, like the Planning Board, had little patience for Routolo's pitch, especially his airing of a promotional video that explains American Tower's business operations.
"I felt that was really a waste of our time," said Anderson, after that video was shown. "If you could be brief and on point, we'd appreciate it. It's late, and a lot of people are here."
In fact, not a single member of the council indicated they were willing to seriously consider the zoning change.
"You have no regulatory control over them. I don't want Woburn to turn into Boston or Las Vegas. We don't like billboards, and we don't need them," said Gately.
"I consider them to be a blight and I also have concerns about the safety of these billboards. I consider them a text message in the sky," later commented Alderman at-large Michael Concannon.