By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
"I'm all for having a fair hearing before the execution," Miami Commissioner Art Teele told New Times several days before he and his city hall colleagues were to consider the fate of the local billboard industry. Indeed when he tore into the Outdoor Advertising Review Board at the March 29 commission meeting, it sounded like a death sentence. Teele was "amazed," he proclaimed from the dais, that the members of this industry-dominated committee did not put self-interest aside and offer a plan that would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars per month. He was outraged that after the commission gave the billboard companies a chance to help legislate, "they responded with silence." And they had misbehaved worse than that. "The billboard industry has taken out a gun and cocked it," Teele declared. This was a reference to state legislation now under consideration in Tallahassee that would snuff out local control of outdoor advertising throughout Florida.
Teele's condemnation was painfully ironic, for it was he who dreamed up the idea of an industry-stacked review board this past September. His four fellow commissioners and Mayor Joe Carollo backed him in a vote that month. Although no language in the resolution creating the review board alluded to industry input, Teele and other commissioners maintain that was their intent. That explained the presence on the board of three billboard-company representatives: Steve Alexander of Eller Media, Rex Hodges of Carter Outdoor Advertising, and Andy Hancock of Miami Outdoor. Two other members -- land-use attorney Lucia Dougherty and public-relations woman Bobbie Mumford -- also have ties to the industry. The token advocate for enforcing the current sign ordinance was Commissioner Johnny Winton's appointee, Steve Hagen, a neighborhood activist from Miami's billboard-packed Upper Eastside.
And so industry input is what the commission got. The review board's report recommended bigger signs, taller signs, signs closer to expressways, and more signs.
But now, on this Thursday afternoon in March, Teele seemed fit to drag the review board to the gallows. A reasonable proposal, he scolded, might have been for the industry to offer removal of half its illegal signs immediately and to phase out the others over a period of time.
Other commissioners also expressed indignation. A stern-faced Joe Sanchez said he was "sideswiped" by the revelation that both city administrators and billboard companies had ignored a 1990 ordinance requiring hundreds of billboards to be dismantled by 1996. That law also confined outdoor advertising to zones the city designates as "industrial" or "liberal commercial." Another section of the ordinance that dates to 1985 permits a "maximum of ten" billboards along expressways that run through the city; at least twenty-one more are now standing. A majority of these illegal signs belong to Carter Outdoor.
Commissioner Tomas Regalado (whose appointee on the board was Carter executive Hodges) expressed concern that the press and the public had misconstrued the commission's creation of an industry-stacked review panel. "We appointed the board to get industry input," he reiterated. "Not because the industry had us in their pocket."
Review board members Hancock, Hodges, Alexander, and Mumford were present but stayed at the back of the chamber and dared not address the commission. So city staffers, including the director of Neighborhood Enhancement Team administration, Dennis Wheeler, were the recipients of the commissioners' heat. Former firefighter Wheeler tried to redirect some of the flames. In response to questions from Sanchez about the lack of enforcement, he shot back: "I said there has generally been inaction. You all appointed a committee. I thought it was in the best interest of the city to stop [enforcement], not knowing what was going to come out of that committee." He noted that according to a citywide survey, 90 percent of the 375 billboards in Miami are illegal.
But whether the city will ever carry out Teele's threatened execution remains uncertain. The commission passed a resolution granting the industry another stay, on top of the year that has now passed since city administrators began counting and citing illegal billboards, only to have the process halted this past September. The new measure directs the city manager and city attorney to study the review board's proposals and the Planning and Zoning Department's recommendations, which leave current regulations intact. The resolution gives the city manager 60 days to report back to the commission with (1) a numbering system that would allow inspectors to look at a sign and identify its owner; (2) a financial analysis of permit fees that have or should have been collected from billboard companies; and (3) a procedure for enforcing laws already on the books. The commission passed a second resolution instructing the city manager to oppose any attempts to diminish the authority of local governments who want to phase out billboards on state and federally funded expressways.
If inspectors get around to issuing citations, the billboard scofflaws are sure to get another grace period, because the Code Enforcement Board typically gives violators one to three months to comply. After that, however, the sign decapitators could raise their blades. Assistant director of NET administration Francisco Garcia says the enforcement board could levy fines of $150 to $500 per day against billboard outlaws, which could slice deeply into a sign company's profits. "The fines are translatable into a lien," he adds.
Until that day the billboard companies will continue to reap small fortunes. According to industry sources, a two-faced expressway sign in Miami generates at least $15,000 in revenue each month. So Carter Outdoor, for example, will likely earn at least $120,000 per month from its eight illegal billboards along I-95, I-395, and I-195 until the city forces their removal. If they are charging standard rates, that means in the three years these signs have been in operation, they have likely produced about four million dollars.
"I think the ordinance is going to get changed," Hancock of Miami Outdoor remarked glibly when New Times reached him on his cell phone for his response to the commissioners' damnation. "That's what's going to happen." He couldn't predict how it might change and then hung up before New Timescould ask if he would consider legal action if ordered to remove his billboards.
One reason for Hancock's lack of interest in discussing the matter could be a recent development involving one of his illegal expressway signs, on NW 75th Street just west of I-95. Hancock built the structure in October 1999 with a city permit, though it was issued in violation of the ordinance prohibiting more than ten expressway billboards. (But Hancock did not have a permit from the Florida Department of Transportation, as required by state law.) The sign now bears the owner's tag of Infinity, a CBS subsidiary and one of the world's largest outdoor-advertising firms. Billboards along such heavily traveled corridors typically sell for between one and two million dollars. New Times could not obtain details of the transfer from Miami Outdoor to Infinity. But such a sum could easily cover any cost Hancock would incur should the city require him to dismantle his two illegal expressway billboards in the Overtown area just north of I-395. He is scheduled to appear before the Code Enforcement Board on May 9 for a violation notice he received on one of them nearly a year ago.