EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

December 5, 2012

Lawrence officials wrangle over state ruling that allows more giant signs along local highways

LAWRENCE — Several stories above Interstate 495 at an eastern gateway to city, a glow-in-the-dark sign of things to come is lighting up the sky.

The digital billboard with rolling, 10-second messages advertising the Lottery, Dunkin’ Donuts and “turkey-free deals” at Commonwealth Motors is one of just eight similar billboards the Massachusetts Department of Transportation recently allowed to go up along state highways in a pilot program testing whether the signs distract drivers.

The state concluded they do not, and tomorrow will raise the number of digital billboards allowed along Massachusetts highways — up to six per mile.

In Lawrence, the new state regulations may bring a double dose of the billboards.

Twenty years after the City Council banned new billboards of any type, Mayor William Lantigua is asking the council to allow them back into the city’s three industrial zones, which include the historic mill buildings along the Merrimack River.

A council committee spiked the proposal last month, but only because it wanted the state to go first. With the new state regulations now in place, committee chairwoman Eileen Bernal said her committee may reconsider Lantigua’s proposal if he resubmits it, although she said she herself would oppose it.

“We got rid of billboards for a reason,” Councilor Bernal said. “We want to improve the quality of life in Lawrence and having these everywhere was not appealing to people. They were prolific and they’re hard to get rid of.”

The City Council in the early 1990s banned new billboards everywhere in the city except around the ramps connecting Route 114 to Interstate 495 in South Lawrence. Existing billboards were allowed to remain. Scores do.

City planners had a plan to get rid of at least some of the existing billboards, but the plan stalled in talks with Clear Channel, the communications company that owns many of the local billboards and more than 1,000 others in Massachusetts. Under the plan, Clear Channel would have pulled down dozens of smaller billboards around downtown and in the neighborhoods if it were allowed to erect one large new billboard beside I-495.

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