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Sign of the Times

Springfield ponders how to deal with its first digital billboard.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Like many communities, Springfield has an uneasy relationship with the billboards that dot its neighborhoods and ring its highways. To some, the boards are an aesthetic affront, cluttering the visual landscape of a city that already struggles to get outsiders to see its appealing qualities. To others, the boards represent a degree of economic investment—not a small thing in a city with such profound fiscal problems.

This summer, City Hall is tackling a new kind of billboard controversy: an application by Lamar Outdoor Advertising for a special permit to install the city's first digital billboard, on East Columbus Avenue, adjacent to I-91. If approved, it would be one of up to 18 digital billboards around the state, part of a pilot program begun last fall by the Massachusetts Outdoor Advertising Division, the state board that regulates billboards. According to the OAD, Lamar already holds active permits for 157 billboards in Springfield, making the company the dominant industry player in the city, where the number of billboards is capped at 270.

While the state agency will be assessing the effect of the new boards—evaluating, for instance, whether they contribute to traffic jams or increased accident rates—some in Springfield are urging a careful consideration of what the boards would mean for the city, both aesthetically and financially.

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Russ Seelig wants to see city officials use the potential new billboards as an opportunity to get the best financial deal possible for the city, and address what he considers a long-standing inequity in how billboards are taxed in Springfield.

Seelig is a long-time Forest Park activist; he also served, on a volunteer basis, as a city housing director during the administration of Mayor Charlie Ryan. He's long felt that billboard companies don't pay their fair share of city property taxes, leaving already overburdened residents to shoulder an additional cost. Lamar's request for a special permit for digital billboards represents a chance for the city to get a better deal, Seelig says.

Seelig has used Lamar's rate sheets to calculate what he estimates to be the company's income from its Springfield billboards: about $6.2 million a year. (Seelig accounted for vacancies and discounts by reducing the total by 25 percent.) Steve Hebert, regional vice president for Lamar, disputes Seelig's figures, which he told the Advocate are based on national, not local, rates, but has declined to provide a company figure.

A digital billboard—which allows multiple advertisers, who pay for rotating spots on the board's face—will bring in even more, says Seelig. He points to a digital billboard on I-91 outside Hartford where advertisers pay $4,000 a month for an eight-second spot.

Some communities charge billboard companies a percentage of their total revenue, Seelig notes. Corona, Calif., for instance, reached an agreement with Lamar that will eventually net the city 12 percent of the ad revenue the company makes off its digital billboards there; the agreement also allows the city to put public service announcements on the board, or charge Lamar an additional fee of $40,000 a year for each billboard face. According to the Press-Enterprise newspaper, the city plans to use that money for a youth boxing program and a senior center.

Here, the city cannot legally charge a billboard company a fee based on its revenue. Seelig suggests that the city should charge owners of digital billboards a flat fee of $3,000 per month for each billboard face—income, he notes, that could go a long way in the city, which recently laid off dozens of workers to address a budget shortfall.

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Meanwhile, the city's Planning Department would like to see Lamar take down some of its existing billboards as a condition of getting the special permit. Phil Dromey, the city's deputy director of planning, told the Advocate he recommends that Lamar be required to take down two of its existing double-faced boards along East Columbus Avenue in exchange for the four faces that the two-sided digital board would bring.

Current regulations require that billboards be at least 500 feet from certain structures, including homes, schools and churches, Dromey noted. Lamar currently owns a large number of the city's non-conforming boards, which were grandfathered in when the new requirements were passed.

Lamar, Dromey added, has already removed some of its billboards, including a number along I-291 and some smaller ones attached to commercial buildings in neighborhoods. He would like to see the company remove some of the rooftop boards along East Columbus Avenue that tower over homes.

"I'm looking for ways of trying to make that drive through 91 a more attractive vista of Springfield," Dromey said.

Hebert said his company is already working with the city on removing some billboards, and has taken down "several" over the past year. The company decides which boards to remove based on economic factors, he said. "The last thing we want to do is take down boards," said Hebert, noting the hits taken by the advertising industry during the economic downturn. "If it comes down to losing a job, or taking down a board," he added, the company will take down a billboard.

"The fact that we've taken them down for economic reasons—to take down additional ones doesn't make sense for the business," Hebert said.

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Melinda Phelps, Lamar's attorney in Springfield, says there's not much room for the city to tack on additional fees and requirements to her client's special permit request.

By law, city assessors arrive at a billboard's tax rate by considering what value the board brings to the land on which it stands. To determine that, they look at the lease agreements between billboard companies and the owners of the properties on which their boards are sited. Springfield assessors have determined that each side of a large, non-digital billboard adds $100,000 of value to the land on which it sits. (Because the city has no digital billboards yet, the assessors have not determined what value those boards would add to the property on which they're located.) The city can also assess a building permit fee for the construction of a new billboard based on the value of the structure.

Other than those provisions, Phelps said, "the city of Springfield presently doesn't have any other ordinance [regarding billboard fees] in effect, and we applied under the present system." She maintains that her client satisfies the requirements for a special permit, which generally seek to ensure that a project won't have a detrimental effect on its neighborhood.

While the City Council has the power to grant special permits, Phelps added, it does not have the power to take property by eminent domain—which, she contends, a requirement that Lamar remove some of its existing boards would amount to. "It becomes usurpation of land rights," said Phelps. And because Lamar already has contracts with the property owners it rents from, she said, if it were forced to removed boards, "you're hurting small business people. There's a ripple effect to doing that, in our opinion."

City Councilor Pat Markey said that Dromey's interest in getting Lamar to remove some existing boards, together with the concerns raised by Seelig about what compensation the city could receive under a special permit, were enough to send the matter to committee for further consideration.

"This is the first electronic billboard, so we want to get it right," said Markey, who urged that the permit request be sent to committee for further consideration when it first came before the Council at a May 26 meeting. With more applications likely to come in the future, Markey said, the city might want to amend existing regulations or create a new ordinance to address concerns specific to digital billboards.

Phelps described Lamar as "a very good corporate citizen of the city of Springfield," and said the company would work with local police to put Amber Alerts and other urgent public safety messages on its digital boards, as it does in other communities. The digital boards could also be used to advertise events in downtown Springfield. An estimated 95,000 cars pass Springfield on I-91 every day, Phelps said. "An awful lot of people never get off and go into downtown Springfield," she added. "I think it's a great tool to get people into Springfield."

The attorney said Lamar is interested in maintaining a good relationship with city officials. "We'd work with the city councilors and the Planning Department about future ordinances," she said. "But we did apply under the existing rules."

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The City Council's Planning and Economic Development Committee will take up Lamar's special permit application at its July 17 meeting. At the Council's May meeting, Committee Chairman Bud Williams voted not to send the matter to committee, saying such a move was "holding [Lamar] hostage." (Councilors Bruce Stebbins and Jimmy Ferrera also sit on the committee.)

In a statement prepared for the Advocate, Mayor Domenic Sarno was noncommittal on the permit, although he did cite what he sees as benefits to the city's having a digital billboard.

"I am considering this matter especially knowing that there is an option to provide community service, public safety and public service announcements," the mayor said. "It will also generate a revenue stream not only for the vendor, but also for the City. I believe this is the wave of the future with other cities moving in the same direction. The signs create a more metropolitan atmosphere and this could lead to other futuristic technologies to come."

"The city's out to get the best deal it can get for itself, and obviously we're trying to get the best deal for ourselves," said Hebert, the Lamar vice president. "And I imagine we'll meet somewhere in the middle."

Wherever Lamar and the city meet, it will influence negotiations about any future digital billboards that make their way into the city. "I'm sure this is the wave of the future," said Dromey, the city planner. "We're setting the precedent now—let's make sure we're doing it right."

Comments (1)
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Russ Selig also brought us Longhill Gardens. He does not understand the dynamics of Billboards. He enjoys ruining lives.
Posted by pheobe on 7.16.09 at 6:31
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