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New Regulations May Pave Way to More Digital Billboards

The state is revising its rules on billboards, paving the way for more electronic ones. The MBTA hopes to convert 18 of its billboards to the electronic format.

If you like the digital billboards in place in a few spots around Boston, you'll love new regulations being mulled that would pave the way for more of them.

The state is revising the regulations that govern all types of billboards -- both the traditional kinds as well as the flashy electronic ones. Observers say digital billboards are the way the outdoor advertising industry is going.

Of course, how you feel about billboards depends on who you are—and where the billboard happens to be. A wide range of opinions was on display Tuesday at a public hearing as ad execs, nonprofit marketers and a handful of concerned citizens held forth. The hearing was in front of the Department of Transportation officials responsible for regulating outdoor advertising.

The new regulations are complicated—here's a link to the highly detailed proposals. They are also attached to this post as a PDF.

One provision would require digital signs to devote a minimum of 25 hours a month to public service announcements.

The company that owns most of the state's billboards, Clear Channel, supports the new regulations. A cavalcade of nonprofit officials also spoke in favor. Clear Channel already donates many traditional billboards around the city when paying customers aren't available.

Ruth Bramson of the Girl Scouts brought tiny models of billboards from the "AccomplisHer" campaign.

"There was no better way to reach girls," said Bramson.

For some who spoke, it wasn't so much whether a billboard was electronic or traditional, or even whether it advertised helping homeless children or Blue Moon beer.

Steve Young of the Beacon Hill Civic Assoc. said Beacon Hill should be designated a sign-free area. In his remarks, he took the crowd on a tour of the billboards on display. He said the overall effect of these is "creating what anybody other than the owners of the property and the advertisers on the sign would say is nothing but visual blight in the historic, residential community."

Young urged regulators to pause for 120 days so community groups and other stakeholders can digest the planned changes.

That's a sentiment echoed by James Whitters, the former chairman of the Outdoor Advertising Board—the predecessor of today's Office of Outdoor Advertising.

"We have no billboards on Cape Cod, and that's something we're tremendously proud of," Whitters said. "There is a place for billboards in the Commonwealth and it is primarily commercial."

He said billboards shouldn't be allowed to encroach on residential areas. And he had advice for regulators.

"Go slowly. This is a very important moment," said Whitters.

Another voice of caution was that of Tom Philbin of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents 350 cities and towns. He wanted to make sure that cities and towns have authority to lay down stricter rules than the state.

"If permits are denied at the local level, 'No means no," Philbin said.

And while representatives of the industry giant, Clear Channel, signaled support for the new rules, other industry players objected strongly.

Richard Silverton, executive vice president for Van Wagner Communications, said he understood the need for new regulations on digital billboards. But he decried the new rules for traditional billboards.

He said there is a general "anti-billboard theme" in the new regulations that fails to recognize that signs serve the "valid public purpose" of spurring business.

The regulations would "make it decidedly more difficult for the advertising industry to do business in the Commonwealth," Silverton said.

The MBTA, which is a major landlord of billboards around Boston, supports the changes. An MBTA representative read a letter saying the T gets $20 million in non-fare revenues from the billboards. It plans to convert 18 of its more than 200 signs to digital if the regulations pass.

Peter Ehrlich June 07, 2012 at 07:55 PM
Visual pollution!
Bill Board June 08, 2012 at 12:53 PM
This visual pollution has accomplished a great many things. You should be more versed in your replies.

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