ZBA Approves McClellan Highway Billboard,Residents Upset

After the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals rejected Richard Goldberg’s proposal to erect a 40-foot digital billboard on McClellan Highway at the Hilton Garden Inn’s property, the community hasn’t heard a peep from Goldberg’s billboard company, Logan Communications.

Then activists that have been long against placing new billboards in the neighborhood noticed the proposal was back before the ZBA for a vote last Tuesday.

Local activists that opposed the billboard, like Mary Berninger, showed up to the ZBA hearing, testified once again against the billboard and pointed out that since the ZBA rejected the proposal in February 2017 there has been no community process to reexamine the proposal.

Despite their efforts the ZBA voted in favor of the proposal with the support of Mayor Martin Walsh’s office.

Walsh’s support for the billboard shocked some residents considering his tough stance on billboards in Dorchester when he served in the House of Representatives. Several years ago Walsh was part an effort to bring MBTA billboards under municipal control saying, “It is important for there to be municipal approval (for billboards) in order to ensure that the character of our neighborhoods is not diminished”.

Also shocking was the fact that the when the ZBA rejected the proposal last year ‘without prejudice’. The ZBA’s vote last year was suppose to allegedly reset the process and Goldberg should have come back before the community before going back before the ZBA for vote.

All these arguments fell on deaf ears at last week’s ZBA hearing. While City Councilor Lydia Edwards asked the board for a deferral until a community meeting was held the billboard project was pushed through despite community opposition.

Since it was first proposed the billboard has been met with controversy in the neighborhood. Logan Communications presented their plan at several Orient Heights Neighborhood Council (OHNC) meetings in 2016 and 2017.

At each meeting, members expressed their opposition to Logan Communication’s plans to erect the billboard on the Hilton Garden Inn’s property along McClellan Highway.

Members of the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) that oversaw the permitting and construction of the Hilton Garden Inn were on hand at each meeting to remind OHNC members of Hilton’s agreement with the community to not place any ‘large signage’ or ‘billboards’ whether it was the Hilton brand or not on the property.

Berninger, who was appointed by then Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to the Hilton IAG, led the charge at each meeting. She told OHNC members of the IAG’s position in the past and the agreement made between the neighborhood and Hilton years ago.

Logan Communications countered opposition by saying the billboard would result in several community benefits. One community benefit touted was Logan Communication’s agreement with the priests that oversee the Madonna Shrine to conduct regular landscaping to clean up the Madonna Shrine Hill along McClellan Highway.

At last week’s ZBA meeting several non-profit agencies like the Salesian Boys & Girls Club and Crossroads Family Shelter spoke in favor of the billboard because of Goldberg’s commitment to advertise the agencies on the new billboards. Goldberg, who owns numerous high profile billboards in the community, has also contributed tens of thousands of dollars over the years to some of these local organizations.

However, those in opposition note that Logan Communication would be required under state law to give 15 hours per month to local organizations and nonprofits as well as public service messages like Amber Alerts.

They also pointed out that the OHNC letter of support for the billboard that was again presented to the ZBA last week ahead of the vote was tainted and did not paint a clear picture of the actual vote last year.

While the OHNC voted 38 to 28 in favor of placing the billboard last year, the council’s then president Joseph Ruggiero admitted the vote did not reflect the actual will of the people.

At the meeting in which the vote was taken, Ruggiero explained to members that many abutters allowed to vote on a development project on Horace Street might have mistakenly voted on the billboard even though they were not eligible to vote. OHNC allows residents who have attended two of the last three meetings to submit a secret ballot. Abutters to a project are also allowed to vote.

However, both the billboard and Horace Street development were placed on the same ballot and Ruggiero said at the time the high vote for the billboard may have been a result of abutters to the Horace Street project voting on the billboard when they were not eligible to do so.

“There was a process through which the property owner (Hilton) made a commitment not to erect large signage,” said Berninger. “The city’s own moratorium on billboards should be upheld. The way the vote transpired at the OHNC was part of the acrimony that the proponents caused. It’s always helpful to remember history. The proponent already has a large presence of billboards in East Boston through which they earn significant revenue. It’s good business for them to give back to the community. It’s bad form for them to continue to ignore the IAG and the stated opposition at the OHNC meetings. Questionable voting (at OHNC) also did not help the process.”

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