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Council says digital billboards a no-go for now

Date: 9/1/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- With the defeat of a special permit by the City Council on Aug. 24 that would have allowed the construction of a digital billboard, the applicant has pledged to work with the council on the writing of an ordinance governing such billboards.

Stephen Hebert of Lamar Central Outdoor LLC, the Connecticut-based company that applied for the special permit, told Reminder Publications he was "a little disappointed" the special permit was not granted.

Hebert noted that 44 states have digital billboards and, while Springfield has an ordinance regulating electronic signs located on the premises of a business, it did not have any regulation about the new generation of billboards.

He said the city was "caught off guard."

Digital billboards operate like giant television screens using an array of thousands of LCD lights to display a billboard image. The company operates one along Interstate 91 in Hartford, Conn. messages from several clients can be displayed on the two faces of the sign.

Hebert attended a council subcommittee meeting on Aug. 20 where councilors' concerns about permitting a digital billboard without having a governing ordinance in place were expressed.

Hebert expressed hope the council would approve the special permit and then craft an ordinance. Since the single billboard was under a yearlong pilot program, the city would have the ability to re-examine the issue.

The special permit application was ending its 90-day period during which the council was supposed to address it. If the council had not taken the special permit to a vote, it would have been automatically granted. Hebert said he had already delayed the construction of the sign waiting for the council to schedule a vote.

Hebert's firm was one of 16 companies that successfully applied to be included in a statewide pilot program for 18 digital billboards. The Springfield location was to have been at 603 East Columbus Ave. next to Interstate 91 on property owned by Balise Automotive.

Lamar Central Outdoor LLC owns and operates billboards throughout the city.

There is now a two-year prohibition from Hebert's company applying for a special permit at that location. His company must now find another location under the state program, which will require a new traffic study to ensure the sign will not create a distraction to drivers.

At the Aug. 20 meeting, City Councilor Bud Williams said the purpose of the new ordinance was "not to exact revenue" for outdoor advertising firms but to treat digital billboards like cell phone towers.

Community activist Russell Seelig told Councilors Kateri Walsh, Bruce Stebbins, Patrick Markey and Williams that other communities have crafted regulations that create additional fees from outdoor advertising firms for the signs.

Markey noted the outdoor advertising industry is way ahead of governments in terms of regulations.

"I feel we've got a lot of catching up to do," he said.

Hebert said that to show good faith working with the city, his company had removed over 60 advertising signs from the city ranging in sizes from wall-sized to the standard 14' by 48' billboard.

Issues for the ordinance would address would include size, location and frequency of the displayed message or image.

Phil Dromey of the city's planning department, said, "This is a huge issue for the city of Springfield as it affects the visual view-scape [of the city.]"

Hebert said the South End neighborhood Council had improved the installation location and the digital billboards do not cast off light -- a concern for anyone living near the sign.

The meeting was characterized by some sharp exchanges between the councilors, Dromey and Hebert.

"All these debates demonstrates need for an ordinance," Markey said.

Dromey said an ordinance could be crafted within two months.

Hebert said his forms would be willing to pay "fair and reasonable " fees to the city for the new billboard.