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Opponents speak out against digital signs

Even as local politicians and activists try to halt the appearance of more digital billboards in the Boston area, the electronic ads seem headed for state approval.

At a meeting Thursday of the Massachusetts Office of Outdoor Advertising, opponents voiced disdain for a deal that would allow Clear Channel Outdoor to convert billboards on MBTA property along Interstate 93 between Boston and Somerville to digital signs that would change appearance as often as six times per minute.

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Officials with the Office of Outdoor Advertising, the agency charged with regulating billboards, are expected to make a decision in the next several months on whether the billboards meet state criteria for safety and aesthetic preservation, the last step before the signs are allowed to be converted.

But anti-billboard activists such as Rachel Thurlow of Scenic Massachusetts, an organization that advocates against outdoor advertising, said after the meeting they were doubtful the outcry would have much of an effect.

She and others say that the signs would mar the region's physical beauty and that they could distract drivers enough to cause crashes. Additionally, they have argued that the laws allowing electronic advertising in Massachusetts is murky.

Thurlow said she had little hope that the agency, which is under the umbrella of Massachusetts Department of Transportation, would stop a deal that would bring money to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Last year, an amendment was added to the MBTA’s existing contract with Clear Channel, authorizing up to 18 digital billboards that could stay in place until 2028.

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In May, proposals for digital billboards were removed from the agency’s agenda at the last minute after Richard A. Davey, head of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said he needed more information on the proposed timetable to roll out the new billboards, and the estimated revenue they would bring in. Now, it seems, the approval process is back on track.

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said he has been angered by a process that has ignored the concerns of the communities where the billboards will be placed.

In a letter to the director of the outdoor advertising office he criticized MassDOT for what he called overstepping its bounds.

“Digital signs should not be installed in the city of Somerville unless the city determines that they are appropriate and determines the circumstances under which they should be installed,” Curtatone said.

After the meeting, Edward J. Farley, the director of the Office of Outdoor Advertising, said he understood the criticisms, but said his office’s purview is to determine whether the billboards meet the current legal standards.

“When we render a decision we are doing so based on the regulations and within the law,” he said.

Once the board makes a decision on the billboards, the municipalities, abutters, or the billboard company can appeal the decision in Superior Court.

A representative for Councilor Ayanna Pressley attended the meeting, registering her disapproval of the signs. Representative Jay Livingstone also attended and said he does not want electronic billboards anywhere near Boston, or near his district.

“The skyline of Boston, and the skyline of surrounding communities, shouldn’t be ruined with electronic billboards,” Livingstone said. “We’re messing with the skyline in a way that I think shouldn’t be done.”

In Curtatone’s letter, the mayor also pointed out that though he is not a fan of digital signs, he had been willing to bargain with Clear Channel Outdoor, which had previously sought city approval for digital signs on billboards it already owns.

In exchange for allowing a few of the city’s billboards to become digital, he wanted a larger number of analog billboards to come down. He also wanted to be able to used the electronic billboards to display Somerville-related public service announcements, and he asked that the city receive financial compensation.

Instead of negotiating with Somerville, Curtatone said, Clear Channel Outdoor instead chose to digitize billboards on MBTA land, allowing the company to bypass Somerville’s zoning laws.

Clear Channel Outdoor spokesman Jason D. King said he respects the concerns of local leaders but disagrees with their criticism of the signs.

“The Commonwealth has a thorough application process that must be met in order for signs to be approved and we believe these signs meet, or exceed that criteria,” King said.

He added that the company is continuing to pursue a deal with the City of Somerville for additional digital billboards.

In the past, Clear Channel officials have argued that digital billboards can provide a public good, such as the display of public service announcements in real-time. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombings, the company posted photos of the two suspected bombers minutes after the FBI provided the images to the public.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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