Electronic billboards lead to discussion of process for changing city regulations

A proposed zoning regulation text change to allow electronic billboards along I-95 is specifically intended for billboards at 84 Research Drive, but potentially affects three others along the highway.

All of the subject properties are owned by D’Amato Investments LLC, which lists Louis J. D’Amato of Milford as member. The billboards are located between Woodmont and Quarry roads.

A visual check along I-95 shows a double sized billboard in front of the building at 58-60 Research Drive, and a single-sided billboard behind the building, as viewed from the northbound on-ramp from Woodmont Road. Along the highway, a double-sized billboard is adjacent to the building at 84 Research Drive, and a double-sided billboard is next to a building at 116 Research Drive.

Attorney Winthrop S. Smith Jr. introduced the proposed text change at the Planning and Zoning Board’s (P&Z) Aug. 16 meeting. The board deferred any action on a proposed regulation change, pending comments from the city attorney, and outside agencies.

The current regulation under Article V, Sec., of the zoning regulations states, “Electronic message signs are prohibited. An electronic message sign shall not be defined to include clocks and/or thermometer displays.”

The proposed revised regulation submitted by Smith adds the wording to the second sentence, so it now would read, “An electronic message sign shall not be defined to include clocks and/or thermometer displays, and/or digital billboards located in the ICD or ID zones, oriented toward I-95.”

The ID zone is roughly located between I-95 and the Metro North railroad tracks west of the Schick facility off Home Acres Road. The ICD zone is encircled by the ID zone and is located along both sides of Old Gate Lane.

One consideration of the regulation update is that if the board approved it, the change could then pave the way to expand that regulation to billboards in other locations and other zones, and potentially extend to store signs.

The regulation change is being proposed on behalf of Independent Outdoor LLC of Stamford, which lists James E. Johnsen, of Darien, and John E. Stuart of Stamford as members.

Speaking in his office on Aug. 24, Joseph D. Griffith, director of permitting and land use, said he made the recommendation to delay P&Z action on the text change, following a discussion with city attorney Jonathan Berchem regarding regulation changes proposed by applicants.

“We have well-defined regulations for zone changes. We don’t go into any description of procedures for changing the text,” said Griffith. “I am trying to get a more defined process for text regulation changes.”

With this proposed text change for billboards, Griffith is having the item follow the same procedure as would occur with a zone change.

In adopting a procedure for this process, the board would have to define who would see it first, indicated Griffith, whether it is the subcommittee, the full board, or city departments and outside agencies.

“The other only thing that is defined is that at the end of that process there is a public hearing,” said Griffith. “It is my intent to internally adopt a specific procedure.”

When the Milford Prevention Council (MPC) and Mayor Benjamin Blake introduced proposed revisions to the city’s regulations for marijuana facilities at the board’s April 5 meeting, it did not follow this procedure.

The board conducted a public hearing, and then referred the proposal to its Regulations Subcommittee for review. The board rejected those changes at its June 21 because it decided to have zoning staff update these regulations, rather than try to rework the proposal from the MPC and the mayor.

The electronic billboard proposal has been submitted for comments to the city attorney, the town clerks of Stratford, and Orange, the city clerk of West Haven, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Greater Bridgeport Regional Planning Agency, and South Central Regional Council of Governments.

John Grant, chairman of the Regulations Subcommittee, concurs with Griffith’s comments. Grant said the subcommittee is looking to revise the regulations for this process.

One possibility would be to have the subcommittee be the first to review any proposed regulations change submitted by applicants, said Grant. The subcommittee would then pass the proposal along to the full board with a recommendation to either circulate it to outside agencies for further comment, or to deny it.

“The feeling is that to go directly to the board can take a lot of time, since the board needs time to review it,” said Grant.

Grant said that “99 percent of text changes from the outside, either a developer, a contractor, or an attorney representing a developer, are so they can do something that the zoning regulations will not allow.” The revised review process could include the provision that the board would only approve a change that is beneficial to the city, and not to a single applicant, he said.

With regard to the current proposal, Grant said he wants to review the state regulations for electronic billboards, and also those regarding light pollution.

“According to the state DOT [Department of Transportation], there is not a distraction for electronic billboards,” said Grant, noting that he knows someone whose car rear-ended another vehicle while viewing an electronic billboard.