Over a dozen years ago, Dorchester's self-appointed billboard king, Joe Chaisson, and a handful of other diehards were fighting hard to stanch a flow of the giant roadside signs into the neighborhood. They managed to create some tough obstacles for advertisers, such as forcing property owners to get a city zoning variance if they want to add a new billboard next to federaly-assisted highways in the city, or modify an existing one.
Before that, neighborhoods had little say in it.
At that time, Chaisson, despite being what some have called a "one-man show," helped create neighborhood-wide consensus against billboards. But the demand for advertising space is relentless. Well-placed boards off the Southeast Expressway rake in tens of thousands by the week, and other prime spots in the neighborhood can do well too.
Today, for better or for worse, it is increasingly becoming every civic association for itself when it comes to dealing with giant corporations like Clear Channel.
Exceptions to the anti-billboard rule have been made in Savin Hill and proposed in Neponset Circle and new deals are being forged in Cedar Grove and Port Norfolk. Such deals area a recent phenomenon, at least for billboards, and the civics involved are learning to play the game, partly by trial and error.
"It is definitely new," said Mary McCarthy, president of the Port Norfolk Civic Association. Their executive board is currently negotiating with Clear Channel over a proposed billboard along the expressway behind Signs By J Inc. at 100 Tenean Street.
"We're kinda researching the stuff ourselves. We're trying to be creative, but we'll see where the group goes."
In talking with Clear Channel, the group discovered another potential effort by the company to lease space for a new billboard behind 50 Redfield St., a property recently purchased by John McGrail of the Mayo Group. Another billboard company attempted the same location back in 2005 and failed.
But the story really begins with Chaisson and his billboard subcommittee of the now-defunct Dorchester Allied Neighborhoods Association. In 1993, after seven years plus of Chaisson prying his way into the door at the state's Outdoor Advertising Board meetings, the city's Zoning Commission voted to change the zoning code and require any new billboards within 660 feet of a federally assisted roadway to get approval from the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA).
"Prior to that ordinance they had to go to the state Outdoor Advertising Board," said Chaisson. The first day Chaisson showed up at that state board, they told him he could only speak through his municipality. Anyone who knows him knows this was just like baiting a bull with a red flag.
Since the zoning changed, very few new billboards have been approved.
One was at 215 Sydney St. in Savin Hill back in 2003. At the time, the neighborhood was reading stories about the Little House health center on Dorchester Avenue closing, so when two New York real estate investors came to them wanting a billboard next to their big empty building, the neighborhood suggested they designate the building for 'community use' in exchange for the billboard approval. Though Dot Art moved in for awhile, the building was never truly taken advantage of, largely because, as former Columbia Savin Hill Civic Association treasurer Nora McDonnell put it, the groups who needed space in the neighborhood needed it for free.
"Some people may have regrets about 215 Sydney Street," said current CSHCA president Dierdre Habershaw. "It has taken years to do anything with the building."
The place is currently being converted into artist lofts, according to Habershaw and others.
Then came local billboard owner John Carroll with a proposal to spruce up Neponset Circle in exchange for allowing him to replace an existing billboard with an updated but same-size version on a building he owns at 415 Neponset Ave.
Even with the support of the Pope's Hill Neighborhood Association and the Cedar Grove Civic Association, the proposal was swatted down by the ZBA on July 10, 2007.
But generating a lot of talk these days is a deal first proposed by John O'Toole of Cedar Grove Civic Association in September 2007 that will siphon off some $150,000 for St. Brendan School from Clear Channel's rents to property owner Arthur Murphy in return for letting a billboard over his building at the corner of Adams Street and Gallivan Boulevard remain in place.
For years the two boards there received the evil eye of neighborhood activists. When it came about that Sprint, the cellular phone company, wanted the site for a new cell tower, they saw an opportunity and pressured the Zoning Board of Appeal to require the removal of the billboards in exchange for the cell tower.
They won. But Clear Channel came back with a cash offer to the community to reconsider. When Cedar Grove Civic first came back in support of keeping the billboard, the ZBA stuck to their original decision but in an unusual move, they did an about face after the fact. Now the billboard will stay, and evidently the deal to make a $150,000 donation to St. Brendan School is back on track.
O'Toole declined to comment for this article, due to ongoing and "delicate" negotiations.
The Cedar Grove deal, even half-completed, is influencing Port Norfolk Civic's decision-making on the Signs By J proposal, according to Mary McCarthy. Some of the ideas being tossed around are a new bathhouse for Tenean Beach, a maintenance fund for the Daniel O'Connor Park currently under construction, or even a donation to the Mike Leahy Fund, a Port Norfolk resident who died unexpectedly earlier this year. Leahy had once teamed up with Chaisson against the placards.
Critics like Chaisson and former billboard-fighter and Port Norfolk resident John Krall grudgingly admit the value of cash donations even if they are dead set against billboards, but insist neighborhoods make sure they get their fair share if they are going to wheel and deal.
"I say they take 10 percent every year and divide that amongst all the groups along the highway," said Chaisson. "Clear Channel is not going to go for that but if the [civics] want to go for money that's the fair solution."
"He's probably right," admits McCarthy about Chaisson's claim that all expressway neighbors should benefit. "But how do you control that money?"
Currently, McCarthy thinks her civic is likely to assign most of the money to Port Norfolk causes and wants to give some to the greater community as well.
"We're trying to be creative," she said. "But we'll see where the group goes."
Other civic leaders along the highway are beginning to worry that the current every-civic-for-itself situation could get out of hand.
"If we've spent the last 20 years taking down billboards we shouldn't start putting them up again just because they're sweetening the pot," said Phil Carver, president of the Popes Hill Civic. "They're basically trying to play civic associations off each other."
Last year, Carver, Chaisson and a short-list of other civic leaders along the expressway were called together to entertain a deal proposed by Clear Channel that would have taken down signs in the neighborhood in exchange for adding them along the expressway. Although Cohen from Signs By J says that deal is still a possibility, Council President Maureen Feeney,who called the original meeting together, said it has foundered since then. Chaisson admits he raised issue with a number of the properties on the list of to-be-removed billboards, pointing out that many of them were "already illegal" because they were on MBTA property.
"Had there been consensus at that original meeting, there may not have been all these individual meetings," said Feeney, adding that she will always support any individual community's own choice on what to do about billboard variance requests. "If I had my way there would be no billboards anywhere, but with the value of these billboards it's unrealistic for us to believe that they would just disappear."