A drive down the southern stretch of Route 9 is a scenic one – offering glimpses of the Connecticut River and rolling hills, the famous New England foliage in autumn, and ice-glazed bluffs in winter.
Billboards are rare on Route 9. Outside of New Britain – which features a handful of them that greet highway drivers as they approach, or drive away from, the city’s downtown – there are none.
But that could soon change after the Cromwell Planning and Zoning Commission approved a permit for two one-sided 48-foot wide electronic billboards rising 50 feet above the ground. The signs were approved for a location almost across the highway from the wastewater treatment plant, next to the northbound lanes of the highway.
Dominick DeMartino, who owns other billboards in the state, including in Meriden and Milford, applied to install the electronic billboards on a property he owns on Piney Ridge Road in Cromwell.
Those voting to approve the billboards, including Vice Chair Michael Cannata, cited the benefits the relatively low-cost advertising could bring to businesses in Cromwell. Supporters of the plan also questioned whether the commission could reject the billboard after giving approval to the property’s rezoning to a Commercial Billboard District.
Cannata said the land isn’t ideal for a subdivision because it is so close to the highway and overlooks the sewage treatment plant, and that the billboards require no town services. Saying he’s not “rah rah” in favor of billboards, Cannata said he still thinks that with the conditions DeMartino agreed to, it’s a plus for Cromwell.
“The point is the property owner is entitled to use of his property, as he sees fit, within our regulations,” Cannata said. “We have regulations that are going to allow billboards on an interstate highway, and he’s choosing to exercise that application. There are other uses that I think are more detrimental to the town than this use, and he’s jumped through all the hoops.”
Opponents of the plan questioned the benefits of the billboards to Cromwell businesses, and echoed concerns some residents shared in past meetings, warning the billboards were another hazard that would distract drivers and potentially cause more accidents.
Commission Chair Alice Kelly, who voted against the permit, cited such concerns at the Monday meeting. According to the state vehicle crash data repository, there have been 169 crashes causing an injury or death on Route 9 in Cromwell since 2015.
“I understand that, for people who want to draw business, they want to have these flashy things and all,” Kelly said. “I think that when people are on the road, their mind should be on the road, not looking at flashy signs.”
The billboards are fitted with louvers on the edges that block the light as drivers pass them, DeMartino said in response. The billboards will not be allowed to operate between midnight and 5 a.m. under the special use permit approved by the commission.
In an effort to limit the visibility to neighbors around the site, DeMartino plans to reforest about 1.75 acres of land on the property. The trees planted will be saplings, a mix of white oak, red oak, sugar maple and eastern red cedar. DeMartino said he would be responsible for taking care of the property, including the billboards and the trees.
DeMartino said he will work with the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce to set up some sort of lottery to give local businesses some free advertising on the billboards, and suggested he could offer lower rates for local businesses.
DeMartino told the commission he has already heard from local businesses who want to advertise on the billboards, including Cromwell Diner, which advertises on a billboard DeMartino owns in Meriden along Interstate 91.
“I’m looking forward to working with the town on anything the town wanted to promote,” DeMartino said. “Mainly, I think it’s the farmers’ market, but if there’s other things the town would like to promote, I want to be behind that.”
The Merritt model
One Connecticut highway where you won’t see billboards any time soon is the Merritt Parkway, where state law prohibits them.
“The parkway was really designed around this anti-billboard movement,” said Wes Haynes, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy. “Billboards were seen as, sort of like the pop ups you get now on your computer – they were seen as visual pollution.”
That anti-billboard movement when the Merritt was being built in the 1930s shaped the entire Wilbur Cross system, and the Westchester County parkway system in New York, Haynes said. Route 9, also built in the 1930s, has parkway-like elements and captured the scenic qualities of a parkway in some areas. Adding billboards would have a negative impact on those qualities, which is why they were kept off the Merritt.
“We have some extraordinarily beautiful rural roads, and they get that way really just through inertia, and maybe the volume of traffic on some of them has not demanded billboards,” Haynes said. “The rural quality of Connecticut’s roads is a very fragile element that can be destroyed by a billboard or a cell phone tower, or something like that that just pops up.”
The approved billboards still require permits from the Connecticut Department of Transportation.
The commission is also considering another application for a billboard along Route 9, which the commission asked the applicant, Rodney Bitgood, to revise at a February meeting. Richard Carella, the attorney representing Bitgood in his application, could not be reached for comment.