MERIDEN — The allowed space allowed between digital billboards could shrink if the city approves a zoning change requested by an outdoor advertising agency.
Recent discussions of the proposal led City Councilors to raise questions that still need to be addressed about the benefits of those billboards, including generated tax revenue, as well as concerns about the possible proliferation of billboards along I-91, in the city’s Billboard Overlay District.
Outfront Media LLC, a national firm with offices in New Haven, is requesting the city amend its zoning regulations to remove language that currently limits the spacing between digital billboards to 1,500 feet between each of those billboards.
Outfront currently operates a digital billboard along I-691. The company is currently party to a lease at 639 Research Parkway, just east of I-91’s northbound lanes, and plans to install a digital billboard at that location.
The City Council’s Economic Development, Housing and Zoning Committee held a remote virtual hearing regarding the proposed zoning amendment on July 20. That hearing has been continued to the next committee meeting, which is currently scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 17.
Presently, the allowed spacing between traditional billboards under current regulations is 750 feet. Officials also used other names for those non-digital billboards, sometimes calling them “conventional” or “static” billboards.
According to city zoning regulations, the Billboard Overlay District limits the placement of billboards to limited access highways and to a limited stretch along I-91 and a small section of I-691. According to a staff report prepared by city planning officials, digital billboards are already permitted within this zone. According to officials there are currently 13 billboards either already built or approved in the overlay zone.
According to the staff report, the proposed amendment appears to be consistent with the city’s Plan of Conservation and Development. The report also indicated findings that the proposed amendment would not cause “negative inter-municipal impacts to the towns” south of Meriden, nor would it have an adverse environmental impact to the area’s ecosystem.
Attorney Jim Loughlin of Wallingford and Brian Roeser, a real estate manager for Outfront, represented the applicant during the initial hour-long public hearing.
During that hearing, committee members, fellow city councilors, and Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who had also logged in, asked a series of questions regarding the benefits the amendment would provide to the city and raised concerns about the possible proliferation of digital billboards and increased light pollution in residential areas. Officials and Outfront representatives stated the proposal would not lead to a proliferation of billboards and suggested the number of billboards likely would not increase.
Committee member Bruce Fontanella asked Outfront’s representatives what the benefit would be to the city.
Roeser responded the digital platform would provide more social utility — enabling civic organizations to advertise campaigns for which they would not have the budgets for on a traditional platform. Roeser also described the ability to quickly program emergency notifications, such as amber alerts, which can be programmed onto a digital billboard, that would not be available on the traditional platform.
Fontanella asked Roeser whether there would be any economic benefits to the city with the change. Roeser responded that benefit would be through tax revenue, although he did not provide any revenue estimates.
Roeser and Loughlin were later asked about the costs of advertising on a digital billboard versus a traditional billboard traditional campaign, and described digital pricing that was about one-third that of traditional one.
Committee member Dan Brunet expressed skepticism about the proposal. He noted when the overlay district was first discussed in 2013, he and others who were opposed to it had reservations that it “just encourages the proliferation of billboards. I think it’s non-value added. It’s an eyesore.”
Later during the hearing, City Councilor Yvette Cortez would raise another question regarding taxes, asking how much total tax revenue the city receives from billboards.
Acting Planning Director Paul Dickson said his office could get that information from the city’s tax assessor and provide it during the next hearing.
Cortez described that information as important. “The one benefit to the city is taxes,” she said, noting that they would be largely used for commercial purposes. “So what’s the benefit to local businesses? What’s the benefit to the taxpayer?”
Meanwhile, other billboard operators who submitted written testimony offered mixed views. One operator suggested the amendment would lead to a proliferation of billboards, and dilute their value with more supply than demand.
Another current operator, Dominick Demartino, a member of DFC of Meriden LLC, wrote to the committee that the city should grant the owners of current static billboards the right to convert them to digital.
“Thus there would be no additional billboards, just attractive ones,” Demartino wrote.
Demartino, who later spoke with the Record-Journal by phone, said if municipalities allow existing static boards to be converted to digital that would result in reduced landfill waste. He said it would also help the local business community rebound from a slowed economy that was spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the key thing with digital billboards is you can get more local business owners or operators able to operate on digital billboards because the cost of the advertisement is cheaper. If you reduce the cost to the advertiser that hopefully will help the local business community,” Demartino said.