Port Norfolk Civic considers billboard deal

Plans to erect a new billboard on the Southeastern Expressway stalled this week after Port Norfolk neighbors demanded more time to review the proposal, which would divert an unspecified percentage of profits back into the community in return for their acceptance.

The Port Norfolk Civic Association chose not to decide about the plan presented by Sullivan & McLaughlin electrical company at its Jan. 20 meeting. The billboard would be built at 84R Tenean St. off the southbound lane of the highway in between a two-story home and a blue metal warehouse. The property is owned by Sullivan & McLaughlin and used for commercial purposes.

Dan McDevitt, an attorney representing Sullivan & McLaughlin, said the sign's total height would be 60 feet and the two-sided billboard within the 14 foot by 48 foot state size limit.

"This section of Port Norfolk is clearly 100 percent commercial," said McDevitt when proposing the project. "There are no residences there."

McDevitt said the billboard would not be seen from the neighborhood because it is on the opposite side of the highway.

Part of the meeting was held b ehind closed doors and Port Norfolk Civic Association leaders would not reveal to the Reporter what percentage of profit was being considered in negotiations. It would be an annual payment for 20 years. The group had previously requested 10 percent of another billboard proposal, though talks on that project have stalled.

"It's probably more money than we can deal with ourselves," said Mary McCarthy, Port Norfolk Civic Association president. "We probably would need to set up a nonprofit."

Reaction from meeting attendees was mixed. Some argued billboards, especially in a commercial location like Tenean Street, have little impact on the community, particularly signs situated on the highway. Others welcomed the potential income stream.

Some were concerned with the impression it creates for the neighborhood in the eyes of passing motorists, and believed more signs made it less inviting. One man wanted assurance that offensive ads would be promptly removed. Another thought they were dangerous distractions to drivers.

"We want to create a win-win situation," said John Rudicus of Sullivan & McLaughlin. "We have no interest in rolling a ball uphill. We heard there was a sign in the works and we wanted to bake a better cake. We live here, we work here, and our intention is to be responsive with our neighbors. I don't want my car egged."

Billboards are big business and good placement off I-93 can generate as much as tens of thousands each week in rent. McDevitt estimated the project would cost $350,000 to build.

An effective obstacle was established against new billboards in the 1990s, however, after regulations changed. One rule required property owners to get a city zoning variance for billboards within 660 feet of a federally assisted roadway.

With the change, developers were forced to seek approval of neighborhood civic associations before bringing their case before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). The controversial billboards had long been opposed by civic associations at the time.

"I think they're stupid if they allow it," said Joe Chaisson, longtime anti-billboard activist who helped bring about the regulation changes. "Back in the 1980s, myself and a lot of others spent a lot of time to defeat a billboard for the same location."

Sullivan & McLaughlin have already filed with the ZBA for a hearing, but would likely require a go ahead from the Port Norfolk Civic Association to be granted a variance.

Billboard builders have tried to convince civic groups to support their projects in recent years, such as a promise to give over an empty building at 215 Sydney St. to community use and a 2007 ZBA-denied plan to replace the 415 Neponset Ave. billboard on the condition that its owner spruce up Neponset Circle.

Things took a turn last year, however, when property owner Arthur Murphy offered a $150,000 donation to St. Brendan's School Guild in return for Cedar Grove Neighborhood Association support of two existing Clear Channel billboards above Windy City Pizza in Adams Corner.

"They've tried everything possible," said Chaisson. "Now they're offering money. To me, that's bribery in every sense."

After Clear Channel's offer the ZBA allowed the signs to stay, setting a new precedent in the neighborhood. With money for communities now part of the equation, the Port Norfolk Civic Association responded to a proposal for a billboard at Signs By J Inc. at 100 Tenean St. this summer by proposing Clear Channel annually divert 10 percent of its profits back to the community in return for the civic's acceptance.

McCarthy said Clear Channel has not responded since the offer was made.

Clear Channel is also attempting to lease space for a billboard behind 50 Redfield St., property owned by John McGrail of the Mayo Group. A 2005 attempt to build at the location was blocked by residents.

Some possible uses for billboard income in Port Norfolk include a new bathhouse for Tenean Beach, a maintenance fund for the Daniel O'Connor Park or a donation to the Mike Leahy Fund.