Lamar Advertising wants electronic billboards – The neighborhood wants their trees back

Lamar Advertising illegally bulldozed over 100 trees in the Washington Park Neighborhood of Providence, a place plagued by asthma and the lowest tree census in the city. Now they want the City Council to grant them a windfall in the form of bright, light polluting digitized billboards in the same neighborhood.
Photo for Lamar Advertising wants electronic billboards – The neighborhood wants their trees back

Published on November 1, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist


On Tuesday UpriseRI learned that Lamar Advertising had withdrawn their request for a zoning change.

Notice regarding Committee on Ordinances Public Hearing on November 3rd:
Please be advised that the Committee on Ordinances will be continuing the matter of Zoning Amendment-Article 20, Section 2003-Non-Conforming Uses for a public hearing to a later date at the request of the petitioner.

Warning: They will be back if we are not vigilant.

On Wednesday the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee, chaired by Councilmember Nicholas Narducci Jr, will take up a proposal by billboard company Lamar Advertising to permit the conversion of some static billboards into electronic message signs. But Providence residents want the request denied, because Lamar Advertising is a bad actor that illegally clear cut trees in a neighborhood struggling for environmental justice.

The City Council has reached a tentative agreement with Lamar Advertising, a Louisiana based company, to allow the conversion. It must pass out of the Ordinance Committee before the City Council votes on it in a full session. The committee meeting is the only place the public will be allowed to speak out on the proposal. The plan is that in exchange for allowing the conversion of some billboards to electronic message signs, Lamar will give up an equal amount of square footage of smaller signs it owns and operates throughout Providence. These signs are mostly considered to be visual clutter and blight. Their removal will enhance the neighborhoods they now occupy, but in exchange as many as 25 electronic billboards could be created along the highways that cut through Providence, per the proposed ordinance.

As Scenic America, a national nonprofit that “helps citizens safeguard the scenic qualities of America’s roadways,” points out in their testimony, the one-to-one equivalent square footage agreement “compares unfavorably” to agreements reached in Kansas City, MO, where a seven-to-one conversion agreement was reached, or the ten-to-one conversion agreement reached by Tampa, FL. Doing less than these cities amounts to a financial windfall for Lamar and does not benefit the City of Providence at all.

Other letters in opposition to the proposed agreement have come from the Fox Point Neighborhood Association, the Providence Preservation Society, and the Washington Park Neighborhood Association. Fox Point and Washington Park are going to be the most adversely affected communities, since they have highways built through them. Those in opposition note that electronic billboards contribute to unsafe driving by being a distraction to drivers, and add light pollution to neighborhoods adjacent to highways.

Tree Cutting

Recently Lamar Advertising has come under fire from the Washington Park Neighborhood Association and Scenic America because the company illegally bulldozed over 100 buffer trees in the Washington Park neighborhood along Interstate 95. According to ecoRI, Lamar was given permission by the City to trim back the trees to allow their billboards to be seen, but said a mix-up with their contractor resulted in the trees being clearcut. The trees cleared were on land owned by the City.

The Washington Park neighborhood has among the lowest number of trees in Providence, and the highest rates of asthma. Every tree lost damages the lungs of children and adults. The trees also act as a sound buffer, reducing the constant noise of traffic hitting the neighborhood.

“It was erroneous on our part,” said Michael Murphy, general manager at Lamar Advertising’s Providence office, to ecoRI. “It was a miscommunication.”

In response, the City of Providence has “requested” that Lamar replant the trees.

But this is not enough in the eyes of Linda Perri, President of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association. She teamed with Scenic America to start an online petition. “Tell the Ordinance Committee that Lamar can’t be trusted and that the sign code should NOT be amended to allow Lamar to digitize their signs.”

As ecoRI points out in their article, simply replanting an equivalent number of new trees is not enough. Young trees don’t clean nearly as much air as older, established trees. To restore what was lost, Lamar should be planting at least 300 trees. And the petition demands exactly that.

The full demands as outlined in the petition are:

  • Demand restitution. Lamar should plant 300 new trees to ease the blow to Washington Park’s tree canopy and the negative impact to residents.
  • Demand that Lamar removes the billboard: A billboard prone to view obstruction simply isn’t worth the price of trees and vegetation to our residents’ quality of life.
  • Oppose an amendment that will allow static billboards to be converted to digital billboards. Lamar has pushed the limits before. How far will they go?
  • Demand new laws to prevent such clear-cutting from happening. If billboard advertising companies were prohibited from removing vegetation for better visibility, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. Rhode Island is one of many states that allow this tree-cutting practice, and it needs to stop. Our state and federal government leaders must put protections in place for highway buffer trees.

You can sign the petition here.

But the most effective way to demand environmental justice for the long suffering neighborhoods around the Port of Providence is to show up in person at the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee hearing and demand that Lamar Advertising’s bid to replace billboards with electronic signs be permanently shut down and that the company be held responsible for their “mistake.”

Those wishing to testify against this ordinance should be in the Providence City Council Chamber on the 3rd floor of Providence City Hall next Wednesday, November 3, 2021 at 4pm.

Also, at the same meeting, strongly advocate against the expansion of fossil fuels in the Port of Providence by supporting two pieces of legislation seeking to stop the further expansion of LPG.

The Port of Providence is under constant attack by businesses out to make a profit while damaging the health of Providence’s youth. See:

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