By Keith Eddings
---- — 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.
The proposal Lantigua recently sent to the City Council would have reopened the door to billboards in Lawrence, but only in the industrial zones. Besides the mills along the Merrimack River and Malden Mills, the zones include a warehouse district on Andover Street and several acres on Marston Street that includes the Commonwealth Motors dealership, where the electronic billboard erected as part of the state’s pilot program now greets drivers as they enter the city limits from the east.
Lantigua and Patrick Blanchette, the city’s director of economic development, did not return phone calls seeking information about their proposal to bring back billboards. The proposal would allow billboards only by special permit, meaning each application to erect a billboard would be considered separately and require a public hearing.
Norm Nimmo, the chairman of the city Planning Board, which endorsed the zoning changes that would allow billboards, said the plan is intended to make money for the city.
“Given the situation for the city right now, anything is worth trying,” Nimmo said. “We’re in desperate straits. We voted for revenue, is the long and short of it.”
There’s a lot to be made. Nimmo said larger billboards were earning $3,300 a month for their owners when he rented one a decade ago for Bread and Roses, a local non-profit agency. A slice of the rent went to the city.
There are losers too. A 2011 study by an urban planner from Philadelphia found that while billboards make money for landowners who allow them, neighboring properties suffer.
“Billboards negatively impact home values,” planner Jonathan Snyder said in the study, which is posted on the website of Scenic America, an environmental organization dedicated to improving the view from America’s roads. “For each additional billboard in a (Philadelphia) census tract, there is a $947 decrease in home value. Considering that the mean number of billboards in a census tract is 4.8, the resulting decrease in value is $4,546 per house for homes in such districts when compared to the price of an equivalent home in a census tract without billboards.”
Allowing billboards in the city’s riverfront mill districts also could undermine efforts to redevelop the mills for housing and smaller commercial uses and demean the historic value of the mills, according to Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission. Several 19th century mills in Lawrence have been converted in recent years, including the Washington, Monarch and Malden Mills and Union Crossing.
“It’s hard to absorb large billboards in neighborhoods where you’re trying to attract more housing and retail operations,” DiZoglio said. “The trend is to keep them outside of neighborhoods. This would be a whole different approach.”
Brenda Rossi, president of the Sacred Heart Neighborhood Association, has another concern.
“How many Metro PCS billboards do we need in the city?” Rossi asked. “How many vodka ads do we need?”
Under the new Massachusetts regulations, Clear Channel and other billboard companies could erect billboards along highways only if localities agree to allow them.
The localities will be allowed to negotiate their own deals with the companies. Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, could not say whether the new regulations will permit localities to collect fees from the companies as part of the deals they can negotiate.
The state will get no revenues from the billboard companies, but the companies will be required to provide the state with free public service announcements and roadway advisories on their billboards. Last year, the PSAs the state posted on billboards in the pilot program were worth $820,000, the DOT said.
Four states, including Maine and Vermont, and several municipalities, including Boulder, Colo., and Fairfax County, Va., ban all billboards.
To read the study on billboards' impact on property values: