Tomorrow night, the Zoning Board of Appeals will open its hearing on the permit request for a digital billboard on Route 9. Included in the application is a Use Variance request, based on Southborough zoning laws which prohibit the use.
The proposed sign by the Framingham border has generated a lot of attention. The ZBA was already expecting to receive a report from the Planning Board this week. Hours before that board met, the Town received a letter from Framingham’s Planning Board.
According to the Framingham Planning Board, the use is also outlawed in Framingham. The board appears to be concerned about the proximity to its Town.
The neighboring board weighed in on its and Southborough’s bylaws, the possibility of regulation by MassDOT, and questions and concerns about project details. (You can read the letter here.)
Meanwhile, Southborough’s Planning Board made their own unfavorable determination last night.
In their Monday night meeting, applicant Dominic Serra made his pitch to the board with help from Attorney William Pezzoni.
Pezzoni dismissed Framingham’s concerns. He said they have approved plenty of projects near the Town line that put parking in Southborough or add traffic to our roads while they collect the taxes. He believed it was about time Southborough reaped benefits along the border.
The attorney tried to convince the Planning Board that the project is in the Town’s best interest. He warned that in court cases across the country states are determining that outlawing billboards as a business is illegal. He pointed to when Towns had to scramble to zone locations for strip clubs when the courts determined they couldn’t be banned. He said it was better for the board to approve the billboard at 6-8 Turnpike Road than later have one forced on them elsewhere.
It was an argument that didn’t hold water with the board. Upon questioning, Serra said that the billboard proximity prohibitions are only 1,000 feet. The board didn’t see how approving this one would prevent others if courts ruled to allow them.
During public comment, Freddie Gillespie opined that the Town should deal with it then by rewriting zoning if and when Mass courts force the issue. She claimed that MassDOT regulators don’t allow the signs where Town bylaws prohibit it. She believed that prohibition would buy time for municipalities to rewrite zoning if necessary.
Chair Don Morris’ recounted the work done on redrafting bylaws since 2000 and as recently as 2013. At the time, Planning and others collaborated to update and revise bylaws. (Something that never made it to Town Meeting.) Everyone involved, including business representatives, agreed that they wanted signs to remain limited to preserve Southborough’s small town feel.
Morris was unsure that the applicant’s offer of money to programs like recreation and the schools was appropriate. (Though, Pezzoni referred to it as a sort of mitigation and not “pay for play”.) But he approved of Serra’s offer to allow the Town advertising for programs and alerts.
The Chair told Serra that his proposal might be “really great for another town”, but not Southborough:
What you are proposing sounds really good, except that it’s highly inconsistent with the direction that the Town of Southborough wanted to and continues to want to go in relative to signs.
Serra said that as a resident he understands Southborough’s small town concerns. That was why he chose the location at 6-8 Turnpike instead of areas within view of residences.
Determining that the sign isn’t in keeping with the area, the board unanimously voted to give the application an unfavorable report. Morris said the letter would be submitted to the ZBA prior to their hearing. That is scheduled for Wednesday, December 13th at 7:00 pm in the Town Hall Hearing Room.
Sam Stivers, Jack and Louise Barron and I sent a letter to the ZBA that outlines the numerous sections of our Zoning Code the project doesn’t comply with. And why it doesn’t meet the legal requirements for ANY Variances or Special Permits.
We have identified what we believe to be a number of procedural flaws and other considerations that together make a strong argument for the ZBA to deny this application—anyone interested in our detailed comments can read the letter at this link :
For those that don’t want to read a 6 page letter (almost a legal brief) here are some highlights:
1. Our bylaw specifically prohibits billboards.
2. The billboard doesn’t comply with over 14 sections of our zoning code.
3. The sign is 50 feet tall – 5 feet higher than we allow office buildings on Route 9.
4. The project does not have any of the required conditions that must exist in order for Any Variances to be given per our Bylaw and Mass General Law
5. However there is nothing to prevent this ZBA from approving it -the only recourse if they do – is to appeal. But only people who have “legal standing” will be heard by the courts. Legal standing almost always requires you be a direct abutter. – and all the abutters are businesses – not likely to appeal
6. The proponents have been lobbying hard with offers of financial support and free advertising to local organizations if they will support the project.
7. We need citizens to make their voices heard that Southborough doesn’t want this. Please attend tonight’s Hearing .