Murray Marketing, Inc. (“Murray”) executed a letter of intent to purchase an option for a permanent easement over 212 Summer Street (“Locus”) from the landowners for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a billboard. The property was comprised of two adjacent lots, Lot 1 and Lot 2. Both Lots were within a Business General zoning district (“BG district”) in which the maximum ratio of building area to lot area was six square feet of building per one square foot of land. There were three buildings on the property but there was potential for a twelve story building to be constructed as-of-right. It was situated adjacent to Interstate Highway I-290 (“I-290”). Also abutting the site to the north and west was a westbound on-ramp to I-290. To the south, the site abuts a vacant lot owned by the City of Worcester, Massachusetts (“City Lot”). The southern boundary of the City Lot bordered Washington Square. On the south side of Washington Square, approximately 480 feet from the southernmost boundary was Union Station, a building of historical and architectural significance and a centerpiece of economic development strategy.
A planning report adopted by the City Council recommended development opportunities for properties in the Union Station area, including the site at issue. It recommended that new developments needed to be of the appropriate scale and quality to enhance the area, while not detracting from Union Station. Additionally, a Market Analysis report was done where it was observed, under the category of “Other Uses,” most of the parcels have some sort of exposure to I-290 and using a site or a portion of one for a billboard sign would also seem logical.”
Under the Ordinance, billboards were allowed in a BG district by special permit only. The ordinance limited the size to a maximum of sixty feet wide by twenty-five feet high. Also, it required a proposed non-accessory sign to be at least 300 feet from the nearest non-accessory sign on the same side of the street.
Murray submitted a special permit application to erect a forty-eight foot by fourteen-foot billboard on the eastern boundary of the property, approximately 767 feet north of Union Station. The proposed billboard would stand approximately sixty feet high and would have been placed about 800 feet from nearest non-accessory sign on the west side of I-290. The Board denied the application on the grounds that: the proposed location and use were not consistent with the purposes and intent of the Zoning Ordinance; the proposed location of the sign, in close proximity to Union Station, was within the view corridor of Union Station and therefore degrades the character of this important historically and architecturally significant gateway; the proposed sign was not consistent with the City’s planning efforts related to the Washington Square area; and maintaining a clear, uncluttered view corridor for Union Station was an important aspect of this gateway and fitting to its architectural and historic significance. Murray appealed.
The Court agreed with the Town upholding the Board’s authority to consider whether the proposed use was in harmony with the general purposes of the Ordinance when considering a special permit. The court stated that based upon the planning report the Board could have reasonably concluded that the proposed sign was not consistent with the City’s planning efforts. Despite the marketing report, the Court said that while the identification of a billboard as a possible option for an unidentified site in the Washington Square area supports an argument that reasonable minds might differ on the appropriateness of locating a billboard on the site, it was insufficient to demonstrate that the Board’s conclusions were arbitrary. The court concluded that it was well within the discretionary power of the Board to find that the billboard’s detrimental impacts outweighed any other possible benefits to the City, notwithstanding the potential for as-of-right construction on the Locus of a large building.
Murray Mktg. v. City of Worcester Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 2013 WL 5593443 (Mass. Land Ct. 10/9/2013)
The opinion can be accessed at: http://masscases.com/cases/land/2013/2013-10-422507-JUDGMENT.html