Billboards on the Mind, and the Docket for Everett Residents

By Seth Daniel

Billboards are never the most popular item on any agenda, but as the City changes to more of a destination, every billboard item on any City agenda has drawn more and more attention.

With more people choosing Everett as a destination, some worry that billboards – which are technically outlawed in Everett for new construction – might overtake the main thoroughfares.

That’s just the type of anxiety that is showing with a few existing billboards that are being proposed as conversions from the regular, static, boards to the new digital outdoor advertising signs – the ones that are lighted and can change every few minutes.

Building Inspector Jim Soper said the billboard law in Everett is unique.  He said no new billboards, as of now, can be erected in Everett due to an ordinance passed by the City Council on July 20, 1991. However, those with existing billboards can request a conversion or “re-build” of their board, which Soper has to deny, but said can be considered at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA).

Now, however, due to different technology in the billboard industry and more interest in Everett, those conversions are becoming more commonplace. There are two on the docket at the ZBA for Monday, May 15, and Soper said there could be more.

It’s something, he said, the City will have to consider going forward.

“We are expecting to see more of these, especially on Lower Broadway,” he said. “Something is going to happen down there. We don’t know what exactly, but there is a lot of signage in Las Vegas – lots of bright and moving lights. We’ll have to be ready for that. We have to look at this as a larger picture for the City.”

Already, the City has approved one digital billboard on Revere Beach Parkway. It was the first one for the City and was approved by the ZBA for Cove Outdoor Advertising (headed up by Ed O’Sullivan) in 2015.

Most of the digital billboards are two-sided, so as to catch traffic coming in both directions, and now Cove is looking to add the second board on its digital sign so it can catch westbound traffic on the Parkway.

Soper said he had to deny the application, as his determination was that the second side was a new billboard – and thus was prohibited under the 1991 ordinance. That sent the request to the ZBA for May 15.

A second existing billboard in the 300th block of Main Street – owned by Al Lattanzi – is also on the agenda for May 15. That billboard is an older, “static,” board. It is basically the older paper kind, and Soper said he has ruled that one prohibited too. Once it is taken down to convert to digital, his reading of the ordinances is that it would mean new construction is going up – which is prohibited.

Both have caused many to pause, to wonder if it’s sending Everett on a slippery slope that will only be heightened by the City’s recent successes.

Peter McClary, who represents Cove as a consultant on both proposed boards, said residents and City officials ought not to jump to that conclusion.

First, he said these aren’t new boards, but in fact are an updating of existing boards, which makes them safer and gives the City a chance to have free public service announcements. That ability to give back, he said, is a major change for the billboard industry.

“I’ve seen the industry change several times and there has never been a more positive change than digital billboards,” he said. “Some people misunderstand what is a digital outdoor advertising board and what is digital advertising – such as what you might see at a bank. We are tightly regulated…The old signs just had one message, but these can offer several. We are already working with the City on the Parkway sign…If there’s a public message we have a number of slots on that one side of the sign. Right now, we’re advertising the Citywide Yard Sale on May 20. We’re also tied into Amber Alerts…For the first time, a billboard is able to give back to a community.”

For the Main Street sign, McClary said the old static billboards are simply a dying industry, and they need to be replaced. The market, he said, has surpassed those kinds of signs.

“On Main Street – the Lattanzi property – that sign is probably as old as the building,” he said. “It’s a dying industry. It’s been on life support for 25 years and it doesn’t know it’s dying. It doesn’t do much public good either except to say the Big Mac is two-for-one.”

McClary said he plans to tell the ZBA on May 15 about a new technology that would block out the lighting pixels on digital billboards for those not driving at them.

That is a major concern for both signs, as homeowners on Main Street and the upcoming development by Post Road Development on the old Harley Davidson site have major concerns.

McClary said brand new technology allows those on the side of the road not to be able to see the sign or the glare. Only those driving on the road, he said, would see the message.

“The messaging just doesn’t get projected or seen by other people such as the two-family houses or the apartment complexes,” he said. “This technology didn’t exist before, but it does now.”

All those things will be considered at the ZBA meeting, but the larger issue for Soper and the City is to keep track of the conversions throughout the City as things continue to change for the better.

Balancing the two things, once again, will be a narrow path to walk for the City.

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