By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Everyone knows the Magic City's expressways are ever-more exciting these days. Drivers who zigzag at high speeds experience the biggest adrenaline rush, but even the five-mile-per-hour jam can be amusing. We surf the radio waves, talk on cell phones, crank the CD player, and gaze at the growing number of billboards towering over the freeways. "Yes, you're awake," a sign for a bank reminds drivers heading north on I-95. "Syphilis is back," warns another with a catchy swirling graphic meant to connote psychological turmoil. So far the right to phone while you swerve is still legal. Unfortunately several of those billboards are not, according to state highway officials and New Times's reading of a city ordinance.
Once upon a time there were public servants in South Florida who fought to preserve the view of the sky. In 1985 County Commissioners Beverly Phillips and Harvey Ruvin drove hard to ban all billboards from federal and state expressways in the metro area. But City of Miami commissioners beat them off the starting line, enacting an ordinance that year allowing ten such signs along I-95, I-395, and I-195. Then, at county hall, lobbyists for the outdoor advertising industry (including current Miami Commissioner Art Teele) convinced the Metro-Dade commission to let Miami keep its limit of ten. Lobbyists such as Eston "Dusty" Melton, a former Miami Heraldreporter, dubbed the measure the Great Billboard Compromise of 1985.
The maneuver rattled Phillips and still does. She left the commission in 1988 and retired as executive director of the local YWCA five years ago. "I didn't want billboards all over the place. To me they're ugly and they're unnecessary," says Phillips, now age 71. "I just don't think that's what we should have along our expressways. I don't like to drive along an expressway or anywhere else with all these billboards."
Although the city's rule of ten remains on the books, at least 31 large signs face I-95 and other freeways within its borders. And it seems Miami broke its own law by providing permits to billboard owners. "What I'm hoping is they better be in compliance," says Juan Gonzalez, director of the city's planning and zoning department and the man responsible for enforcing the Great Billboard Compromise. He confirms the limit but admits he was a bit hazy on the legal history. "They wanted ten [signs] originally to look at the expressway. I don't know why they picked the magic number of ten," he adds. "I'm not sure how our actual ordinance relates to the county's, because I don't write these ordinances. The only thing I know for a fact is ... no other signs can face directly at the expressway."
When New Timesinformed him of the apparent contradiction between billboard fact and city law, Gonzalez seemed ready to deputize a New Times reporter as a code enforcer. "I'll assure you that once the article comes out and we get those addresses, we'll give them to [code-enforcement workers] to follow up on them," he says. "We'll look at the article, and obviously you're probably going to have certain signs listed there. We'll give them to the [officers] and they'll go out there and take a look [and determine] if they were issued right or wrong."
During the Eighties and much of the Nineties, both county and city governments seemed committed to controlling unsightly advertising along major thoroughfares. The tenth billboard went up just a few years ago, on NW 77th Street east of I-95, recalls George Fisher, who is in charge of regulating outdoor ads for the Florida Department of Transportation's (DOT) District 6 office in West Miami-Dade. "That closed the books," he says.
Or so he thought.
About three years ago, Fisher says he noticed the city began to issue permits for new freeway billboards that apparently violate the limit. Twenty-one new structures have gone up. "I think it's crazy!" Fisher exclaims. "The county and city are not enforcing the ordinances." He can only apply state law, which requires signs to be 1500 feet from another billboard and no more than 65 feet higher than the road.
One of those who has drawn Fisher's attention is Andy Hancock, owner of Miami Outdoor Advertising. Hancock apparently has decided state permits are unnecessary. Last October state inspectors found workers employed by Miami Outdoor erecting a billboard just west of I-95, on NW 74th Street. Hancock's company did not have a state permit. The officials ordered the them to stop, but the crew labored on.
That same month Fisher's team observed another group of Hancock's workers building yet another sign, again sans state consent. This one, located in Overtown at NW Fourteenth Street and First Court, is a stone's throw from an overpass and illegally close to a similar sign. "You could reach out and practically scratch that sign from I-395," observes Fisher. "We caught [Hancock] red-handed," says Fisher.
But Hancock again prevailed. The sign went up. So last October 26, Fisher's office sent some snail mail to Miami Outdoor Advertising with a warning. If both billboards were not dismantled within 30 days, the state would do it and send Hancock the bill. Fisher sent a reminder a little more than a month later. The structures are still up today. One, visible from the eastbound lanes of I-395, treats drivers to a view of a curvaceous bikini-clad woman in the classic come-hither position. The other shows southbound I-95 travelers a bottle of beer next to the slogan "Finally, a beer with guts."