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After fifteen years of myopia, Miami officials are once again protecting your peepers. During the past two months, zoning inspectors have issued dozens of citations to owners of illegal billboards. Among the most prominent are the signs that spoil the skies in Overtown and Wynwood, east of I-95. Still looming large are a female red devil sitting next to a colossal container of Altoids, Largo Honda's grinning white shark seated behind a desk, Yupi.com's dark blue slab with logo featuring a halo and gargantuan rolls of carpet and tile, Washington Mutual Bank's purple promise that its free checking account has nothing to hide, and a lousy photo of a condominium tower next to a bay.
The city's effort to curtail this sullying of one of the Magic City's most valuable tourist attractions (its view) follows two New Times reports (“Everywhere a Sign,” March 23; “Signs of Negligence,” June 1) revealing that many signs illegally tower above expressways. Following this newspaper's inquiries, the city manager's office responded by instructing code enforcers to launch a widespread reconnaissance operation. So far the city has issued violation notices to owners of at least 30 outlaw signs.
But these reinvigorated troops need help. Billboard companies are likely to resort to lawsuits and other tactics to thwart the assault. A mobilized citizenry armed with telephones and e-mail could perhaps provide valuable reinforcement with, say, barrages of phone calls and letters to CEOs of those who would pollute the Miami panorama.
It is no secret that the outdoor advertising industry views your cityscape as nothing more than a vast billboard-delivery system. If you have any doubts, check out the message on one unleased (temporarily) structure along I-95 in north Miami-Dade. “80,000 eyeballs visit this site daily.” It is an uncomfortable reminder that the most valuable product firms like Eller Media, Infinity Outdoor, and others are selling is you. They are peddling your gaze to Miami.com, Dolphin Carpet and Tile, Continuum Condominiums, and the Miller Brewing Company et al, whose huge placards block the sky and violate your pupils.
But you probably think of yourself as more than a pair of ojos. You could even be a discerning, hip individual with a keen sense of aesthetics. (No, not athletics). In fact the Florida Constitution demands nothing less of you. Article 2, Section 7 demands that citizens and leaders “conserve and protect ... scenic beauty.” (For information on how to contact some of these view-defiling advertisers, please see our listing).
In the Eighties Miami commissioners tried to curtail the practice of transforming the city into a giant stage for magnified images of babes, beer bottles, and banks. “The skyline and and the bay view [are] an integral part of the aesthetics package which attracts tourists and promotes domestic tranquilty,” stated a resolution accompanying a 1985 ordinance that imposed strict limits on billboards.
But something happened on the way to the 21st Century. Billboard companies couldn't resist the temptation to make millions, zoning officials lost their aesthetic sensibilities, and huge ugly signs went up in numbers and places they shouldn't have. Instead of allowing only ten along expressways, as the law required, the city permitted more than 30. Inspectors could no longer see the forest for the trees, or the water for the billboards. It got so bad in the late Nineties that officials let advertisements pollute even the rooftops and skyline of our city's most precious enclave of artistic elegance, the Design District.
Then New Timesprompted Miami officials to embrace a new form of minimalism. Sergio Guadix, administrator of the Wynwood/Edgewater Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET), is one of the newest converts to the anti-signage struggle. He and zoning inspector Albert Zamorano have issued citations to the owners of eleven billboards in their bailiwick. Five of them, including one that peddles Yupi.com, rise just east of I-95 and six are along the southern edge of I-195.
Employees of Carter Outdoor Advertising and Outdoor Systems (now owned by CBS subsidiary Infinity Outdoor) acquired city permits and introduced the signs beginning in 1997. Guadix, who took over the NET office in July 1999, renewed at least one of the permits last year. He now admits he shouldn't have signed it. “Those billboards are not supposed to service the highways,” he says. He blames inspectors. “Nobody understood [the ten-sign limit],” he maintains. “Or they didn't want to understand it.”
After consulting with the city's Acting Zoning Administrator Juan Gonzalez, Guadix seems to have a full grasp of the law. He now knows that when the ordinance says “a maximum of ten” billboards oriented along expressways, it means a maximum of ten. And when it says “shall not exceed 30 feet” in height ,it means they should not be taller than 30 feet. He thinks the sign owners now have two options: (1) lower the billboards to no more than 30 feet and face them away from the expressways, or (2) remove them. Carter and Infinity spokesmen did not return calls and faxes from New Times seeking comment.
Some officials have become so overzealous that they've extended the billboard blitz beyond expressway areas and into sign-cluttered neighborhoods. Upper Eastside NET administrator Fred Fernandez recently detected a thicket of eighteen billboards, many of which display colossal bottles of beer, along NE 79th Street east of Biscayne Boulevard. Some of the structures are planted in the ground, while others stand on top of three-story buildings. Most are owned by Eller Media, one of the biggest outdoor advertisers in the nation. Eller acquired the signs from AK Media in January. In most cases the company leases the properties on which the structures stand.
When Fernandez contacted the city building and zoning department in June, he learned that thirteen of the monstrosities were not permitted. Five of them, according to city records, are supposed to be mere signs on outside walls. City law requires such advertising pertain only to the businesses housed inside these buildings. In June Fernandez and inspector Charles Dianbois sent out citations to owners of the offending properties. “If you have a house in the City of Miami and you build an addition, you have to be able to show that you have a permit for it,” he says. “I'm using the same principle as that.” A month later he has yet to hear from any of them.
Eller spokesman Steve Alexander insists the signs have permits, some dating back to 1959. But his company is not going to share copies with the city. “They should be at the [city's] central office downtown,” Alexander adds. “I'm not sure what the problem is. I think it's a question of who [in the city] has got a full set of records.”
Fernandez's next move will be to summon Eller and property owners to appear before a City of Miami zoning hearing board. The officers could assess fines of up to $150 a day per billboard structure.
Important allies waging similar struggles all over the Sunshine State are eager to help Miami's newly mobilized zoning cadres. “I'd be very happy to extend an invitation to them to become members of our organization,” says William Jonson, president of a network of activists called Citizens for a Scenic Florida. From his home in Clearwater the 55-year-old retired Honeywell Space Systems project manager notes a long, difficult battle may lie ahead. Outdoor advertising firms are notorious for suing anybody who tries to hinder their right to create visual blight. “The [billboard companies] will throw everything and the kitchen sink at [their attackers] it,” Jonson says. He warns that issuance of citations is only the first stage of the war. “I would hope that city officials would ... take down the billboards that have been illegally erected,” he urges. “It's crucial."
You don't need a billboard to express yourself. Or a permit. Below is the 4-1-1 on the most egregious abusers of your eyeballs. So e-mail 'em already. Or call.
advertiser: Dunn and Associates, P.A.
contact: Robert Dunn, P.A.,
305-270-9116 or 1-800-CRIMINAL