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Reading using old rule to turn off loudspeakers

Gas stations told to quiet down

By Richard Thompson
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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Reading officials are stepping up enforcement of a decade-old ordinance prohibiting businesses from using loudspeakers and public address systems on-site, a move that has angered some local gas station owners who have relied on advertising at the pumps in order to steer customers into the convenience store.

"If you can't hear it off the property, I don't think it should be an issue at all," said Joseph Prizio Jr., who has co-owned Main Street Mobil in Reading with his son, Joseph III, since 2006.

Renewed interest in carrying out the relatively little-known law was spurred by a public hearing last month, at which a longtime resident expressed concern about the music and commercials being broadcast outside the station as the Board of Selectmen was weighing whether to allow Prizio to open for business at 5 a.m. on weekdays, as opposed to an hour later, when retail sales can begin in Reading.

"I can see how in this economy, it's a good way to advertise, but you need to balance that when you have houses abutting the businesses," said selectmen chairman Stephen Goldy.

While it's not uncommon for communities to have bylaws regulating noise levels, the ordinance in Reading, adopted by Town Meeting members in 1998, was tailored specifically to the town, officials said, which has some business owners like Prizio calling the practice "antibusiness."

In Belmont, for example, music would have to be playing "at a rather astonishing level" in order to violate the local ordinance, said Assistant Town Administrator Jeffrey Conti.

"Our noise bylaw is pretty broad and it's really focused on basically excessive-decibel levels more so than specific sources of noise," Conti said. "We do have specific exemptions from the law for public festivals and things like that, but I don't recall the issue of gas stations having come up."

Gas station owners in Reading say enforcing the ban could shrink their bottom line even as they're struggling to turn a profit on gas because of rising costs coupled with credit card fees and fewer customers.

Prizio, in an interview last week, said he was aware of the ordinance after a building inspector brought it to his attention two years ago, which led him to turn the music off for several months. That was the last he heard about it until the meeting, he said.

The ordinance "wasn't anything we were out there looking for in particular," said Town Manager Peter Hechenbleikner. "But when we get a complaint about something and there's a bylaw in place, you go out and enforce the bylaw."

That push has started with local gas stations, he said, and will next move on to other businesses that are in violation. Owners will be warned about the violation, and additional violations could result in fines of up to $300, he said.

"In Reading, it's so residential, and the businesses are just right on top of all the residents, so the issues I had are standard issues you're going to have with any business that opens early in the morning," said Anthony D'Arezzo, a former Town Meeting member who voiced his concern at the public hearing.

Goldy said the local ordinance, which cannot be waived or appealed by the board, could be due for a second look. "Something we have to think about for our community establishments is thinking about how we can help them track and bring in business, but also thinking about technology," he said.

That's encouraging news for gas station owners like Rick Camuso, who has co-owned Reading Shell on Walkers Brook Drive since 2003.

Camuso, who said he co-owns more than a dozen stations with his brother, Bill, was told to shut off his music at the pumps about six months ago. He said he has been frustrated, having noticed the ordinance not being enforced as stringently at other nearby businesses.

At the Home Depot/Jordan's Furniture complex off Interstate 95, across the street from the Shell station, music could be heard being broadcast from outside Jordan's Furniture recently, including snippets of songs featuring lyrics about Boston. Nearby, soft rock could be heard outside the Starbucks on Walkers Brook Drive, which has two speakers near the front door pumping out music to where coffee drinkers could gather in warmer weather.

Jordan's did not return a call for comment; Starbucks said in a written statement that the company "seeks to be a good neighbor in all communities we serve."

Camuso, for his part, said he has gotten positive feedback about the music.

"To be honest with you, I get compliments at most of my locations, that the customers like to listen to the music rather than just stand there," he said.

Prizio, who said the sound system cost about $2,800 when it was installed three years ago, pays $140 quarterly to have the advertising and the music pumped through it, which he believes is a better advertising alternative than signs.

"It's a big investment for us, because you know, every nickel counts," he said. Enforcement of the ordinance "is just another nail in the coffin."

Richard Thompson can be reached at thompjourn@gmail.com

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