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Medford eyes electronic sign visual pollution

Medford Planning Commission members have taken a dim view of message board signs that advertise for multiple businesses.

"We all dislike regulation," said Planning Commissioner Bill Mansfield. "I do believe we have to take a hard look at sign boards that don't relate to the business — what I would call off-premise advertising."

Two prominent message boards, in particular, display advertising for a number of businesses. One is in front of the People's Bank at the corner of Barnett Road and Highland, and the other is in front of Sleep Country at McAndrews Avenue and Biddle Road.

"My view of these off-premise advertising signs is there should be some regulation on them, perhaps a prohibition," Mansfield said.

Mansfield said the issue arose after the city approved the People's Bank location, which now has a constantly changing sign that advertises for several businesses.

“We thought they were going to advertise interest rates,” Mansfield said. “Now they’re advertising medical services and everything else.”

People's Bank wanted the sign to display current interest rates but also to advertise a couple of medical businesses inside the same building. People's Bank officials wanted a single electronic sign instead of installing a number of signs on the property to advertise the different businesses on the premises.

M2M Development in Medford manages the message board at the corner of Biddle and McAndrews, displaying about 10 different advertisers on it. The sign features photocell sensors to adjust the brightness so it doesn’t interfere with night driving.

In addition, the sign displays community service bulletins alerting motorists about Amber alerts as well as suspects being sought in a criminal case.

“The only thing I can think about with the sign is being a good citizen and a community member,” said Robert MacLellan, who has an ownership interest in M2M.

He said the sign has helped locate an elderly person who was missing and has helped police get the word out about the ban on fireworks in town.

The U.S. is undergoing an evolution in signs and many communities are dealing with electronic message boards in different ways, MacLellan said.

But he doesn’t think prohibiting advertising for off-premises business is a good idea.

“There are people who work and get paid for these signs,” he said.

The issue of over-advertising on electronic signs is part of a broader review of Medford’s sign ordinance. Other issues the Planning Commission will weigh include limiting glare, eliminating flickering images and the ability to change the intensity of the illumination based on ambient light.

Last year, the city adopted a new code that changed the minimum amount of time an image could be displayed from two seconds to five seconds. The continuous scrolling of text is prohibited. Signs in commercial areas can be 150 square feet in size, and in industrial areas, they can be 200 square feet. The size of electronic signs is another issue that the Planning Commission will consider.

Michael Zarosinski, chairman of the Planning Commission, said it is premature to endorse any particular steps to regulate signs.

“We need to protect the visual landscape, but we’re not trying to eliminate advertising or get rid of certain signs,” he said. “Whether or not we want to be Times Square, we will have to sort that out.”

He said the issues Medford faces are being confronted by many other communities around the U.S. as the technology of electronic signs evolves.

Any changes to the code would have to be mindful of freedom of speech considerations, he said

Zarosinski said it will likely take months for the Planning Commission to develop any recommendations to the City Council, which has also expressed frustration about the proliferation of electronic signs. He said the issue will have to be dealt with deliberately and carefully.

“Nothing will be discounted or ignored,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow on Twitter at @reporterdm.

A message board flashes advertisements in front of Peoples Bank in Medford of Barnett Rd Friday. Medford planners want more regulation of message boards that have become a prominent way to advertise businesses. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch