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Council Denies Permit for Lowell St Billboard, Ready to Return to Court

The saga of the 92-foot billboard off Lowell Street will likely resume soon in court to be decided.

The matter of a billboard at 532 Lowell St. is far from settled.

The Peabody City Council denied a special permit Thursday night that would move the controversial 92-foot pole and structure to the rear of the property from its current location and the petitioner now intends to just resume the case in court.

"We all know it’s a major embarrassment to the city of Peabody what’s going on right now," said At-Large Councilor Mike Garabedian. "This doesn’t belong on the back on the building, the front, the side. I can see it [the billboard] from Manchester, New Hampshire."

After months of claims and counter-claims between the city and Total Outdoor Corp., and purported clerical errors, Superior Court Judge Howard Whitehead remanded the matter back to the council on June 26 for consideration rather than begin a retrial.

He said the council had until Sept. 3 to act on what Total Outdoor was saying would be a different plan from either of the two versions addressed so far by the council or in court.

Whitehead did originally overrule the council's denial of the special permit in May 2012, but then agreed with the city this spring that the billboard wasn't installed where it was supposed to go.

The structure is currently attached to the side of the building, in full view of the neighborhood and anyone driving along Lowell Street.

According to attorney John Keilty, the new proposal sought to disassemble the current structure, move it to the rear of the property where Whitehead believed he had approved it for and modify the southerly face of the billboard cap to comply with zoning setback requirements. The company said it would cost about $250,000 to relocate the structure.

City Solicitor Michael Smerczynski told councilors Thursday, however, they were "on tenuous ground" with the decision before them and with Whitehead. He said the judge returned the matter to the council, warning he wouldn't forget previous comments publicly made by councilors as well as previous actions taken by the council.

Smerczynski said his opinion was Whitehead would take another denial of the permit as evidence of "animus" to Total Outdoor and likely hold an expedited trial that would result in overruling the council again. Unless, however, the council provided significant, factual objections why they would deny it, he said.

Ward 5 Councilor Dave Gamache agreed with that assessment, saying it wasn't feasible to try and remove the billboard entirely. "I think our backs are against the wall."

His fellow councilors disagreed, voting 10-1 against approving the permit.

"I was against it from Day One, I’m against it now," said Ward 2 Councilor Arthur Athas, calling the billboard an "eyesore" and a "tragedy" in the neighborhood that Whitehead apparently saw fit to overrule the council on. "It’s not an appropriate spot to have it."

"I think it’s time for the council to take a stand, and for our city solicitor to take a stand," Athas said.

Citing city zoning ordinances on special permits, at-large councilors Anne Manning-Martin and Jim Liacos argued the billboard doesn't satisfy any "desirable local need" nor is it in harmony with the existing neighborhood.

"We say no for those reasons. It’s certainly not in harmony with that neighborhood," Manning-Martin said. "There’s no desirable local need in that monstrosity."

"We were told that you wouldn’t see it. Well, that’s the whole point of a billboard -- to see it, and you do see it. As a matter of fact, you can’t miss it," Liacos said. "No one in this community doesn’t think it’s a monstrosity."

Liacos said special permit hearings go through the "court of democracy" and it's up to elected councilors to represent their constituents on whether a project is beneficial or detrimental to the neighborhood.

"This isn’t about animosity, this isn’t about vengeance, this is about putting a 90-odd-foot billboard on one of the main streets of Peabody in clear view of the residents and in clear view of everyone who travels on Lowell Street," he said.

He said he didn't have a problem with several other billboards that were recently approved by the council because they were on the highway where they belong.

"We only refused that one because it is absurd to put it there," Liacos said.

"This council gets sued quite often. We’re not afraid of making a tough decision and getting sued. If we’re so sure of what judge is going to say, well let’s get a new judge," said Garabedian.

At-Large Councilor Dave Gravel was one of the councilors who voted for the permit a year ago, but said Thursday that was a mistake. He said the plans and images shown to the council at the time "didn't even come close" to what the actual structure looks like and it's present location.

Ward 1 Councilor Barry Osborne, who had also voted for it a year ago, agreed with Gravel. "It's not very often that you get an opportunity to right a wrong," he said.

Council President Tom Gould reflected that the initial billboard hearing a year ago was the first issue he had a strong opinion on at the outset. "I couldn’t believe this was going into that neighborhood."

Packaged along with the council's vote against the permit, Liacos added three zoning clauses dealing with special permits and which he hopes will be "specific enough" as to why the council rejected the proposal this time.

Smerczynski told councilors they were on more solid footing for giving detailed and specific objections in regard to zoning regulations.

A large contingent of neighborhood residents, many from the Ledgewood condominiums, turned out for the hearing again Thursday. Only two residents spoke, reiterating the same comments that they hoped the billboard would be removed entirely, "it has no place in the neighborhood" and is hurting property values.

A man who identified himself as a trustee at Ledgewood submitted another petition to the council that contained signatures from 180 residents opposed to the billboard. He said there were more than 400 people who signed petitions over the past several months.

Keilty said after the hearing that Total Outdoor would appeal. He said the company will just amend it's existing court filing to show that the council has similarly denied this permit.
Stephen Raymond August 24, 2013 at 08:47 AM
poor judgment leads to poor decisions and this one has (and continues to) cost we tax payers big time. Something very fishy about this whole deal right from the start. Getting to be par for the course around here and voters should wake up and take notice. Amazing how some things get done and embarrassing for sure.
DEBBIE August 24, 2013 at 01:41 PM
Yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah, this will never end. Everyone is afraid to make a decision and that is what is pitiful about this entire fiasco. Very sad.
DEBBIE August 24, 2013 at 01:44 PM
So much money and time wasted on this situation. How about someone looking into cleaning up the three inches of green scum that covers (Crystal Lake)? Is that an oxymoron? Rep. Spiliotis did get funds to clean that ghetto up and whatever the city tried, they failed miserably. So, where did the rest of the money go? Hmmmm, politics as usual in Tanner Town.
Saber Walsh August 25, 2013 at 04:04 PM
This company made it clear from their actions that "good faith" was not one of their core values in permitting or dealing with a municipality like Peabody. They got exactly what they deserved.
sun August 26, 2013 at 11:08 AM
lets see there is 4 subways in peabody now maybe we can put another drug store and then dunkin dounts and then talk about community and how we want to make peabody a better place I have a idea lets put a toll both up off rt 128 collect the money from that revenue then all of a sudden traffic disappers overnight ok lets pay another community for VOC school per Year ok term limits for everyone lets open another

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