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WESTWOOD, DEDHAM

New talks reignite billboard battle

128 station seen as prime position

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2011

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Westwood officials are back in fight mode just 16 months after helping to thwart an advertising agency’s proposal to put a large, traditional billboard at the Route 128 train station on the Dedham line.

Originally, public outrage over “visual blight’’ caused the Massachusetts Highway Department’s Outdoor Advertising Division to table the proposal by Clear Channel for more review.

Earlier this month, officials with the media giant quietly reopened the conversation with Dedham, this time proposing a 14-foot by 48-foot digital billboard on the northeast corner of the MBTA/Amtrak train station’s garage.

The billboard is part of a 10-sign, 10-year deal between Clear Channel and the MBTA, which owns the property, but local support is needed before a permit from the state oversight agency can be granted. Nine of the 10 billboards are already up, generating $720,000 in annual income, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

The Dedham billboard is the only holdout.

“It’s a persistent issue because there’s money to be made and it’s certainly a hot spot,’’ said a none-too-happy Westwood Town Administrator Michael Jaillet.

The targeted site straddles the junctions of Blue Hill Drive and Interstate 95 and Route 128 by University Avenue, where the beleaguered Westwood Station project was to go. But whether that project or another is eventually built, a large billboard that changes messages every 20 seconds and takes drivers’ eyes off the road is not optimum, Jaillet said.

“It’s an advertising sign, and the purpose of that is to attract the attention of motorists,’’ he said. “It will be constantly changing at a location where there are two major highway interchanges within one-third of a mile of each other and where I-95 draws half of the traffic off of Route 128. It’s just a dangerous situation.’’

Clear Channel officials who came to Dedham said they have no particular offer on the table and just wanted to feel the town out, said Dedham selectmen chairman James MacDonald.

“A lot of questions were raised about it, and we haven’t taken a position,’’ MacDonald said.

Clear Channel is expected to return to the Dedham board next month armed with data from a study of crashes near 11 electronic billboards around the state that are part of a pilot program with the Office of Outdoor Advertising, MacDonald said. They include billboards in Medford, Stoneham, Lawrence, and Foxborough.

A spokesman for the department was not able to provide any information on the pilot program. Officials at Clear Channel did not return a call for comment.

MacDonald said selectmen will consider the information once it is before them and then take a formal vote in September.

At least one town is itching for a digital billboard. Foxborough Town Manager Kevin Paicos said the Route 1 sign in the pilot program is privately owned, but the town and The Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots, share $400,000 annually from two other traditional billboards near Gillette Stadium.

The town wants to convert one of them to the digital format to play to the 70,000 drivers stuck in traffic a number of times a year, for a revenue boost. Visual blight will not be an issue, he said: “No one will be worried about ruining the splendor of Route 1.’’

The Dedham and Westwood billboard controversy followed another in 2009 in which officials in those towns succeeded in persuading the MBTA to eliminate a separate plan to lease dozens of billboards along major roadways.

Pesaturo said there is currently no plan to reactivate that effort.

Clear Channel has offered to pay Dedham $25,000 a year for 20-plus years if it says yes, or to remove three old billboards that the town wants gone. Dedham could also post its own messages on the electronic billboard, officials said.

It isn’t a surprise that the company has come back for a second try - but the “quid pro quo’’ with Dedham was, Jaillet said, and could be seen as an effort to divide and conquer.

Westwood has sent a letter outlining concerns to Dedham selectmen and the state, urging them to reject the proposal.

Among the arguments is that the proposed sign would violate a 40-year-old state and federal agreement that highway signs are prohibited within 300 feet of parks, open space, or recreation areas, and within 500 feet of a highway exchange.

“This particular sign will visually impact long-established residential neighborhoods to the West (Westwood) and to the North (Dedham), including but not limited to the surrounding Neponset River Watershed and Blue Hill Reservation,’’ the letter, signed by selectmen, said.

Among other concerns, the proposed billboard, though in a commercially zoned area, would also be adjacent to Westwood Station, where a plan to redevelop the adjacent University Park includes residential and hotel units that would have the billboard in their direct line of sight, Jaillet said.

Westwood is now on alert, Jaillet said, and remains vehemently opposed to the plan.

“And it won’t stop there,’’ he said. “We’re not going away on this issue. So my recommendation to them is, ‘Move on. Go find another location. Go find another fight.’ ’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.


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