2001: A Billboard Odyssey

Last year much was learned about Miami's illegal signs, including the fact that they're still standing and still lucrative

If you live in Miami, your city remains under siege by one of the most tenacious insurgencies of the modern era: the billboard industry. So far your troops on the frontlines -- the city's zoning enforcers, attorneys, and commissioners -- have been unable, unwilling, or just plain frightened to mount an all-out counteroffensive. Not one of the estimated illegal billboards -- including at least 31 highly lucrative signs along expressways in Miami -- has been removed in the year and ten months that have passed since the city's crackerjack zoning inspectors began to detect them (see "Everywhere a Sign," March 23, 2000).

Miami's anti-billboard units, however, did make a few small advances in 2001:

•In March Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) inspectors began issuing, and in some cases reissuing, dozens of citations to owners of illegal expressway billboards. The apparent return to enforcement followed the city commission's rejection of proposals by a commission-appointed review board to weaken the sign ordinance, which severely restricts the number and placement of billboards. For example no more than ten billboards are supposed to stand along the stretches of I-95, I-195, I-395, and other expressways that run through Miami.

•In June Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a transportation bill containing a provision that would have eliminated local billboard laws. Eller Media (now Clear Channel Outdoor), Infinity Outdoor (now Viacom Outdoor Group), and other companies that own illegal billboards in Miami had lobbied heavily for the legislation.

•At a July 10 Miami commission meeting, NET director Dennis Wheeler announced his office had completed a yearlong reconnaissance mission in search of all the city's billboards. After hearing for the second time in four months that 90 percent of them were illegal, Miami Commissioner Art Teele exclaimed that the billboard industry had "made a fool" of the city. "We have an industry that has basically become lawless," he fumed. Teele proposed, as a test case, that the city begin enforcing its laws by first removing the most valuable illegal signs: those along expressways. His fellow commissioners passed a resolution to do just that.

But the very next day the industry dropped a bomb: Lawyers hired by Infinity Outdoor filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Miami, under the name of National Advertising Company, a Delaware-registered subsidiary. Miami's sign ordinance "impermissibly infringes" on the billboard industry's right to free speech, argued the company's attorneys, who asked the judge to suspend the entire ordinance and require the city's taxpayers to pay the billboard company's legal fees. (Infinity Outdoor merged with TDI Worldwide to form Viacom Outdoor Group last August.) Lawyers in the city's legal department cringed, then halted the code-enforcement process.

To make matters worse, not only were dozens of illegal signs still standing but more of them went up, one right under the nose of NET director Wheeler. Even as Teele was excoriating the industry in July, its operatives erected a billboard in plain view of Wheeler's office at the Miami Riverside Center. Months earlier Atlanta-based Boardworks Outdoor Advertising had installed a very tall billboard stanchion on SW Sixth Street near the Miami River. The pole's location, in a zone designated industrial, was legal because billboards are allowed in such areas as long as they meet spacing and height requirements, and face away from expressways. Inspectors from the downtown NET office deemed it too tall, however, and the company lowered it to the requisite 30 feet. But when the two rectangular sign faces themselves finally went up, Boardworks oriented one of them toward the southern stretch of I-95's downtown overpass, thus violating the limit of ten expressway billboards.

Assistant NET director Francisco Garcia was surprised when he spied it from his office window several months ago, after New Times brought it to his attention during a telephone interview. "One face of it is clearly generally facing the expressway," he concurred. That orientation, he allowed, would render it illegal. "We're up against a formidable opponent, to say the least," he concluded. The billboard is still up, although advertising has yet to be plastered on it.

Boardworks was merely following the example of two local companies, Carter Outdoor and Miami Outdoor. This past summer Miami Outdoor president Andy Hancock confessed to New Timesthat when he learned Carter Outdoor had breached the expressway-billboard cap in 1998, he was inspired. "People said, “Hey, Hancock. What's wrong with you?'" he recalled. "I see this other guy doing this down the street, and I say, “Why not?'"

He admitted knowing that the two billboard structures he soon put up -- one in Overtown and another just west of I-95 at NW 74th Street -- were illegal. "Look, the city issued the permits," he shrugged. "The only way really to resolve it is to change the City of Miami ordinance, which you know is wrong and I know is wrong. Or leave it the same and take down the signs. Those are the two options. That's what it boils down to."

Carter Outdoor's Rex Hodges, meanwhile, has argued that his signs along I-95, I-195, and I-395 might actually be legal. Even if a billboard appearsto be an expressway billboard, it might not really be one, he posited. "It all comes down to interpreting the ordinance," he asserted in an interview last year. "If you can see it [from the expressway], is it an “expressway board' or is it a board over there on that secondary street?" When asked whether he receives expressway rates for the Carter billboards near the expressways, Hodges forced a smile. "What else would you like to know?" he countered. "I think you're trying to focus on some specific things, and I won't go there with you."

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