Signs of Negligence

Despite this newspaper's best efforts, drivers still must suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous billboards

In March New Times made two unsettling discoveries. At least 31 billboards (21 of them illegal) along I-95, I-395, and I-195 clutter the landscape. And, though city and county codes prohibit construction of such signs oriented toward freeway drivers in an area east of I-95, five have gone up in the past two years.

The reaction by city and county officials to the exposé: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. A somnambular citizenry is to be expected, perhaps. But dozing public servants? They still care enough to enforce local ordinances, right? Maybe everyone was just too busy with other matters, such as the reunion of a six-year-old boy with his father and the city hall reorganization that followed. Someone would get around to the signage scandal, we thought.

But so far, nada. Hungry for action New Times has pressed on with its nonviolent jihad. After all, the city's top zoning regulator, Juan Gonzalez, had virtually deputized one of this newspaper's reporters as a code inspector (see "Everywhere a Sign," March 23). When informed of the offending billboards back then, Gonzalez vowed to investigate after New Times published the locations. A few weeks later he said his staff had discovered four improper signs, but no action had been taken.

Billboard burlesque: Outdoor advertisers and officials make a mockery of local law
Steve Satterwhite
Billboard burlesque: Outdoor advertisers and officials make a mockery of local law

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Seeking an update we repeatedly called Gonzalez over the past two weeks, to no avail. A message left for planning and zoning director Ana Gelabert also went unanswered. So we sought relief from Assistant City Attorney Joel Maxwell. Perhaps he could shed some light on how the law could so blatantly be violated. Maybe New Times had missed a magical loophole that allowed 21 more billboards than the 10 permitted by a May 1985 city ordinance. Maxwell signed it. A county law passed a month later reinforced the city's cap. Lobbyists who had worked on the legislation sardonically dubbed it the "Great Billboard Compromise."

The prohibition isn't complicated. No more than ten billboards and none east of I-95. See? Zoning law is easy.

Disregarding simplicity Maxwell declines to deal with the matter. "The zoning administrator is charged with interpreting the zoning ordinance," he says. "It's his call." Even if city law states only "a maximum of ten [outdoor advertising signs] in number" are allowed along Miami's freeways and expressways? It's still his call? "Reasonable people can disagree," Maxwell replies.

After reviewing the three-page city law at New Times's urging, Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton offers some encouraging vehemence. "Based on the information you've provided me, some billboards have been installed in direct violation of a city ordinance," he asserts. "If that's the case, then they need to come down." But he concedes the matter is not at the top of his priority list and he isn't sure who is responsible for rooting out the violators. "I don't know who the cracker-downer is yet," he says.

Next stop: the county's top zoning regulator, Guillermo Olmedillo, director of Miami-Dade's Department of Planning and Zoning. He is familiar with the issue because he helped draft the city billboard ordinance back in 1985, when he was a City of Miami zoning official. At first, however, it seems we have run into another roadblock. Olmedillo's secretary insists the director will not be free for two weeks. New Times begins to consider hiring a lobbyist. But that soon becomes unnecessary; Olmedillo grants an appointment that requires only a three-day wait.

Seated calmly in his quiet eleventh-floor office at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, Olmedillo concurs with Winton and New Times. "What surprises me is that they allowed some [billboards] east of I-95." Regarding the ten-sign limit, Olmedillo remarks, "I thought that was the end of it. No more than that." Now we were getting somewhere.

But it is a nettlesome problem, especially since the illegal structures are already up. "How the hell do we enforce that?" he wonders, noting that he is thinking out loud. The county would send the billboard owner a violation notice, he ventures. Then the county would send a letter to the Miami city manager asking him to look into the matter. "The city would have to respond to us to say why they did what they did," Olmedillo adds. But there's a caveat: He needs to consult with county attorneys to see whether Miami-Dade can force Miami to uphold the billboard law. At press time he had no answer to that question.

And hey, if you don't trust New Times, Olmedillo, or Winton's take on the law, you can check it out for yourself. The easiest-to-find billboards are owned by Carter Pritchett Advertising. Two of them tower over two little houses in Wynwood, just east of I-95 and north of I-395. For months one has featured the omnipresent Yupi.com halo on a dark-blue backdrop; the other, an ad for a car dealership, displays a shark with a mischievous grin sitting behind a desk. Or take the Carter Pritchett sign just west of I-95, at State Road 836. It shows an ad for salsa station WRTO-FM (98.3). Just 200 feet away is an Eller Media billboard with a woman in a red dress lying on her side. Not only does this sign break the local limit of ten, it also violates city, county, and state laws requiring at least 1500 feet between structures.

The State of Florida. Aha! Surely they will take on the sign scofflaws. A call to Francine Steelman, general counsel for the state Department of Transportation's Miami office, reveals FDOT's inspector general is conducting a widespread fraud investigation into the permitting of billboards along state and federal roadways in Miami-Dade. "This is much bigger than [an inquiry into four or five questionable signs]," Steelman adds, refusing to offer any details. The state official directly responsible for targeting billboards in these parts, however, isn't likely to take action soon. She is new to her job. "This is an Olympic-size pool of information," roadside administrator Jeanne Cann acknowledges. "And I'm in the deep end swallowing little gulps."

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