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Meriden’s electronic billboard plan faces scrutiny

MERIDEN — Exactly 501 feet separate a conventional billboard that has fronted Interstate 91 for several years and the skeleton of what city officials plan to make an electronic billboard that could bring in $1 million of revenue.

There are reasons the structure remains just a skeleton, however, as the City Council and Planning Commission have been working to get the new billboard in place. An electronic billboard for the eastern-most edge of 528 Murdock Ave., a property better known as Nessing Field, has been in the discussion stages for years. The council has passed multiple zoning changes, new billboard regulations and even a zoning district that outlines where future billboards can be placed in order to ensure the electronic billboard is erected.

The owner of the property directly to the north, 470 Murdock Ave., is now challenging the city’s billboard and wants to put up its own electronic billboard, according to attorney Dennis Ceneviva. Ceneviva represented DFC of Meriden, the owner, at a recent Planning Commission meeting. DFC is an LLC owned by Dominick and Giuseppina Demartino.

“This is a taxpayer looking to take the existing billboard and the only things that would change are the static faces,” he said. “It would take all of a couple of hours.”

Electronic billboards have grown in popularity and can be seen along Interstate 91 in Hartford and New Haven. They allow for a greater amount of advertising revenue, as the image can change every seven seconds at minimum, per city regulations. The electronic billboard placed on city land would generate about $1 million in revenue for the city over a 20-year span with the remaining profits going to the advertising company, The Lamar Cos. The city would also be allowed to use the billboard for 2,000 hours throughout the year for any reason.

The skeleton was constructed earlier this year, with city records showing a permit given to the city in late September to construct a sign at 528 Murdock Ave. at a cost of $23,475. City officials called the proposed billboard a “win-win” for the city, but, as Ceneviva noted, it will violate state laws, the likely reason the sign has not been put up behind Nessing Field.

State regulations require a distance of 1,500 feet between billboards and, in this case, the city is in the process of having one constructed just 501 feet away, according to City Planner Dominick Caruso. City regulations call for conventional billboards to be separated from other conventional or digital billboards by at least 750 feet if on the same side of the highway. Digital billboards have to be separated by at least 1,500 feet from each other. Ceneviva noted that the city does not have a billboard constructed, just the skeleton.

“The city will do everything in its power to get what it wants. The city gets what it wants,” Ceneviva told the Planning Commission. “What the city has today is nothing. ... It is not built because the state has the final word on that.”

State regulations also require that billboards be at least 100 feet away from a park. The city-owned billboard property is too close to Nessing Field so the City Council zoned a piece of the park property as industrial so that the billboard can be allowed. A state Department of Transportation official said the city has withdrawn its application, but has plans to re-submit it following the zoning change.

At the meeting, Caruso urged the commission to deny the application by DFC because it did not fall within the city’s regulations. He added that the new billboard was being constructed and has faith the application will be approved at the state level citing the city’s legal staff and outside legal counsel John B. Kennelly. Kennelly could not be reached for comment, Friday afternoon.

“They are all convinced the regulations are established and this wasn’t established to prevent a taxpayer from doing anything,” Caruso said.

In an interview last month, Kennelly insisted that the state had not issued any type of “cease and desist” order and that only “some housekeeping” needed to be done. Kennelly added that he was confident the billboard proposal would go through.

Ceneviva, however, is confident that it will not. He recommended the Planning Commission approve his application on the condition it only be allowed if the city is denied.

“That’s how confident I am that the state is not going to approve the design for this,” Ceneviva said. “The city was so anxious to rush forward and cut a marvelous deal for the city...”

The Planning Commission opted to postpone action on the electronic billboard proposal with several questions unanswered and to wait and see what the DOT does with Meriden’s application.

dbrechlin@recordjournal.com 203-317-2266 Twitter: @DanBrechlinRJ



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