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Communities north of Boston grapple with electronic billboards

Electronic billboards like this one in Stoneham are viewed by some residents as depressing neighborhood home values.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Electronic billboards like this one in Stoneham are viewed by some residents as depressing neighborhood home values.

Amid a proliferation of digital billboards throughout the Bay State, cities and towns north of Boston are grappling with the flashy new technology. Some are embracing the electronic signs as a way to generate much-needed revenue while others are banding together to reject them as visual blight.

Both Stoneham and Medford have had digital billboards — large screens that display multiple advertisements — for about three years. Officials argue that the financial benefits from the new technology outweigh concerns about ruining the landscape, depressing property values, or hurting public safety.

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“There has been a lot of benefits to the community from switching over to digital signs,” said Mayor Michael McGlynn of Medford, boasting that agreements with advertising firms to install digital billboards have pumped more than $2 million into city coffers in recent years. “Overall, it has worked out very well for us.”

McGlynn said Medford also set limits to the number of signs: Only two digital billboards are permitted within city limits. He said the agreements with the firms also required the companies to take down unsightly nonelectronic billboards.

In other North Shore communities, however, the billboards have been met with fierce resistance from local officials and residents who have organized campaigns against them.

In Peabody, city officials have been slugging it out in Essex Superior Court for the past year over a proposal from Beverly-based Total Outdoor Corp. to install a 90-foot-tall digital billboard on Lowell Street. The City Council has been given a Sept. 3 deadline to consider Total Outdoors’ new plan for the sign, and will vote on it at its meeting next Thursday.

Peabody also has approved locations for two digital Clear Channel billboards proposed for 71 and 203 Newbury St. along the busy Route 1 corridor, which is considered a prime location for advertising. Those billboards await approval from the Massachusetts Office of Outdoor Advertising, which regulates placement in the state.

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In Reading, officials are weighing a proposal to prohibit digital billboards in the few areas where zoning allows them, effectively banning the signs. The move comes in response to a public outcry earlier this year over a proposal by Clear Channel to put a digital billboard at a Mobil gas station adjacent to Interstate 93.

“Reading has above-average property values, and it’s one of the roles of local government to protect that investment,” said town Selectman Ben Tafoya, who argues that the billboards would drag down housing values. “We’re getting hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from new developments, and the small amount of money that we would get from digital billboards just isn’t worth it.”

In January, the town’s Board of Selectmen tabled discussion on a proposal from Clear Channel to install a digital billboard at the Mobil station on West Street after the advertising giant pulled the plug on the offer, citing opposition. Town officials said the deal would have generated about $50,000 a year in “host payments.”

Tafoya said the move to ban digital billboards in Reading has been welcomed by officials in neighboring Woburn, which also has rejected the new technology.

“This would be an act of solidarity with them,” he said. “The more communities we can get to come together on this issue, the better off everybody will be.”

John Arena, a Reading selectman who said he does not necessarily support digital billboards, agues that the proposed billboard ban is shortsighted.

He said such a ban “presumes that those who are in power now have the wisdom and vision to look into the future and decide for those who come later . If you vote to ban it, you’re basically telling future generations not to bother.”

He points out that the idea came from a 2010 financial forum in which town officials and administrators brainstormed on new ways to generate revenue during difficult budget times. “This whole thing strikes me as being very hypocritical,” Arena said. “Three years ago, people seemed to be in favor of the idea.”

State regulations allow digital billboards provided that the images are not animated and devote time to public service announcements. The advertisements cannot change more rapidly than every 10 seconds, must not exceed a certain level of brightness at night, and cannot produce sound, according to regulations.

Last year, the state Department of Transportation signed a contract with Clear Channel to convert up to 18 billboards along the state’s roadways to digital, but the move has been met with opposition from environmental groups like Scenic Massachusetts. The group recently filed litigation to block the agreement.

Jason King, a spokesman for Clear Channel, the state’s largest outdoor advertising company, argues that despite the public backlash digital billboards have a “positive impact on local communities economically and in terms of public safety.”

Following the Boston Marathon bombing, he said, law enforcement officials used Clear Channel’s digital billboards to warn motorists to avoid Copley Square, where the explosions occurred. Later, they displayed giant “Wanted” signs with an image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the attacks.

“The benefits of digital media are numerous,” King said. “And there are many communities that recognize this.”

Opponents, like Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen, of Woburn, disagree.

She has led a campaign to keep billboards in her city from going digital and said the signs are “eyesores” that create a “dangerous distraction” for motorists.

“Some communities have been tempted by the lure of money, but in Woburn we have taken a strong stand against them,” she said. “We don’t need them and we don’t want them in our city. We will not become the Las Vegas of the East.”

Globe correspondent Terri Ogan contributed to this report. Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@gmail.com.

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