April 10, 2017 10:55PM
By Leigh Tauss, Record-Journal staff
MERIDEN – Drivers on Interstate 691 might notice a new digital billboard flashing advertisements near Exit 8.
Overlooking the westbound side of the highway, the location was ideal, said David Gannon, owner of Independent Outdoor Network, which operates billboards in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“There’s a lot of traffic. (I-691) is a nice connector route between I-84 and I-91 and a lot of good things are happening in Meriden and Wallingford,” Gannon said. “We thought it would be a good way for people to advertise ... for both Wallingford and Meriden to attract people to the downtown districts and try to get some local businesses on there.”
Despite its proximity to a Pratt Street Extension apartment building, Gannon said the light from the billboard is directed at the highway, causing “no spray,” onto adjacent properties. Representatives from the management company for the apartment building said they had not heard any complaints from residents since the billboard was erected last month.
Gannon also represents the advertising for a non-digital billboard at 470 Murdock Avenue, owned by Dominick and Giuseppina Demartino. The Demartinos filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2013 questioning the legality of the city hosting an electronic billboard on city property at Nessing Field, 528 Murdock Avenue, as a “public use.” The city leased the Nessing Field electronic billboard to Lamar Central Outdoor to bring in $1.1 million in revenue over a 20-year period in 2013.
In order to construct the city’s billboard, multiple zone changes and billboard regulations were passed by the City Council in addition to the creation of a new zoning district for billboards. The two billboards are separated by 501 feet. City requirements state electronic billboards must be 1,500 feet apart, preventing the Demartinos from converting their billboard to electronic.
The couple filed the lawsuit against the city and Lamar Central Outdoor after the Planning Commission approved the application for an electronic billboard in August 2013.
The Demartinos, working under limited liability company DFC Meriden, applied to convert their preexisting static billboard to digital later that year, but their request was denied by the Planning Commission.
The lawsuit argued the city’s electronic billboard application violated zoning laws and should not have been approved because the billboard did not constitute a public use.
Meriden’s Zoning Regulations state that “this zoning ordinance shall not apply to municipal property owned or leased by the City of Meriden for public purposes, including public library, public hospital or public school or park and recreation purposes.”
Judge John F. Cronan dismissed the appeal, boiling down the scope of the case to a matter of grammar.
“This issue appears to the court to be one of first impression. As such, it is necessary to decide whether the word ‘including’ in the regulation only covers public uses such as a park or a hospital or whether this term can be seen as an enhancement so that other uses can be entertained as public use or public purpose,” Cronan wrote. “Lacking any case of statutory law to the contrary, the court will consider the term as enlargement, therefore agreeing with the defendants’ argument that the billboard, in this particular and limited situation, falls within a definition of public use or public purpose.”
Attorney Dennis Ceneviva, who represented the Demartinos in the lawsuit, said the Demartinos’ billboard was erected prior to the city’s, when regulations stated 500 feet was necessary between billboards. After the city constructed its digital billboard, regulations were revised to prohibit electronic billboards within 1,500 of each other, thereby preventing the Demartinos from converting their billboard to digital.
As per Cronan’s argument, Ceneviva said the definition of “public use,” is less vague.
“It’s pretty clear in my mind, and I think, looking at the wording in the regulations that having a billboard is not a public use. It doesn’t provide a public service,” Ceneviva said.
When asked to comment on the lawsuit, City Attorney Deborah Moore said the billboard provides essential funds to the city.
“In these very difficult economic times, the city is able to get a steady stream of revenue from the electronic billboard as it is located on City property adjacent to 91 south,” Moore wrote in an email. “The City has to look at non-traditional revenue streams and potential for income to reduce the tax burden on citizens and businesses.”
Dominick Demartino said he was “disappointed” by the outcome of the lawsuit, stating he had accommodated the city during the planning process for its billboard, even agreeing to relocate his own.
“We had a working relationship, but in the end the city did everything they could to essentially rob me of my digital board,” Demartino said. “If you are playing by the rules and the other person is allowed to change or make up the rules as they go there is no way I could have ever prevailed because they constantly changed the goal line.”