A 5-4 vote by the Planning & Zoning Board (P&Z) at its Dec. 17 meeting in favor of adopting revised zoning regulations to allow digital billboards along I-95 failed because six or more votes are needed to pass a regulation change.

Attorney Kevin J. Curseaden submitted the application on behalf of his client, Dominic DeMartino, who owns an industrial building at 45 Banner Drive, which has a billboard facing the northbound lanes of I-95.

Speaking in favor of the regulation change, Planning & Zoning Chairman Jim Quish said he watched video of the Dec. 3 hearing, as he was not present at that meeting.

Quish said he listened to arguments that questioned the safety of digital billboards, but said he rejected some of those arguments because these billboards are allowed by departments of transportation all over the country.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Quish. He said they could be used for AMBER Alerts and to encourage economic development.

Also speaking in favor was board member Tom Panzella who said he thinks digital billboards are more aesthetically pleasing than static billboards, offer benefits to small businesses, can carry public service messages like AMBER Alerts, and allow the city to advertise the Oyster Festival and other events.

“I think the benefits far and away outweigh any type of negative that comes out of this,” said Panzella. He said cell phones in cars are more of a distraction.

On the opposing side, board member John Grant said he saw no benefit to the city, other than perhaps an economic one, and said he believed they were a safety hazard because people’s eyes are drawn to them, and they may slow down to look at them.

Board member Robert Satti said he agreed with many of the concerns raised by Grant. He said there are still questions about safety.

“I don’t think we have enough information to decide that,” said Satti.

Board member Scott Marlowe said he agreed with Satti and Grant, saying he does not see the benefit to digital billboards and said he does not like any kind of billboards.

“I’m finding it tough to understand how it isn’t distracting when the very nature of advertising is to draw your attention to it,” said Marlow, asking “Is it where we want Milford to head with digital billboards?”

Board member Jim Kader said initially he planned to support the motion, but said he was moved by the comments from residents. He said while driving along I-95, he turned his head to look at an advertisement for concert that interested him, and then asked himself: “What am I doing? I’m supposed to driving ... What is the point of advertising, if you don’t want people to look at it?”

Speaking in favor, board Vice Chairman Carl Moore said we live in a digital age and that if people obey the rules of the road, there would not be an issue.

“Safety is not a concern,” said Moore.

Also in favor was board member Nancy Austin, who said she has been in the advertising business for more than five years and said digital billboards are not flashing displays like in Las Vegas, and said sometimes a static billboard can be more of a distraction due to its lights.

“It’s a great medium for our local businesses to advertise on,” said Austin. “It is a great way to display our city with local events.”

Not commenting, but also voting in favor was board member Brian Kaligian. Board member Peg Kearney was not present.

After the vote, City Planner David B. Sulkis said the motion failed because six votes are needed to pass a regulation change.

Prior to the final vote, the board did agree to an amendment by Grant to remove three zones from the proposed regulation change. Grant said the Corridor Design Development Districts 3 and 5 and the Interchange Commercial District (ICD) zones currently have no billboards in them.

Grant also suggested requiring applicants to apply for a “special” zoning permit, saying the word “special” was not part of the draft regulation.

The board also agreed with an amendment by Satti to change the timing of billboards in the draft regulation from changing every 10 seconds to changing every 8 seconds.

Since the regulation change did not pass, these amendments had no effect.

Satti made the first motion on the regulation change to refer it to the board’s Regulations Subcommittee “for further investigation and action,” but that motion failed due to lack of a second.

During public hearings on Nov. 19 and Dec. 3, the board heard testimony from Curseaden and traffic experts, who presented studies, which concluded that digital billboards are no more distracting than static billboards and are not linked to any increase in motor vehicle accidents.

Curseaden said digital billboards have economic and community benefits. He said the city will have advertising spots and could use them to share messages about floods or AMBER Alerts, and will earn increased tax revenue as compared to static billboards. He said small business owners could purchase advertisements less expensively and more flexibly than a regular billboard.

Three local businesspeople, one of whom is in the billboard business and another who has billboards on his property along I-95, spoke in favor of the regulation change at the Dec. 3 hearing, saying digital billboards will have economic benefits. About 15 residents, who commented at the hearings or wrote emails to the board, asked the board to deny the regulation change, citing safety and visual concerns.

In other business, the board voted unanimously without discussion to approve Mayor Benjamin Blake’s capital improvement plan for 2020-24, in a vote known as an 8-24 referral in which the P&Z acts in an advisory capacity to the Board of Aldermen on matters involving city-owned property.

In his memo to the board, Blake wrote, “It is important to point out that this plan does not set priorities nor does it carry any funding commitment.”

Sulkis told the board the capital plan comes before it every year for approval, and having a plan in place allows the city to apply for state and federal grants to fund projects.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Quish presented a certificate of appreciation to three board members who are not returning: Marlow, a former chairman and vice chairman of the board; Grant, former chairman of the Regulations Subcommittee, and Panzella. Quish thanked them for their service to the board and community.