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 Herald reporter, 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."
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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 Times informed 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."
Hancock has requested a hearing, which has yet to take place. And he may have a strong defense, because the City of Miami issued permits for both. "The Florida DOT wanted to take them down," comments Hancock's office manager Christine, who did not want to disclose her last name. "I guess they feel like they're more powerful than the city," she adds with a giggle. "On the other hand, we got City of Miami permits. I'm looking at them right now."
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The state also is investigating at least four other questionable billboards east of I-95, including two in Wynwood that are spaced only about 50 feet apart. They tower over a shotgun shack at 570 NW 22nd St. occupied by 65-year-old Joe Jackson, Jr., and his wife, Ella Mae. When Jackson looks up from his yard he sees, instead of wafting clouds, a picture of several colossal rolls of carpeting. Nearby an enormous halo hovers near Yupi.com's minimalist logo. Neither of the monstrosities bothers him. One reason could be that his landlord is none other than Rex Hodges, one of the owners of Carter Outdoor Advertising. Hodges also occasionally pays Jackson ten or fifteen dollars to clean up around the billboards.
While New Times was inspecting the 22nd Street lot recently, a shiny green Mitsubishi Montero pulled around the corner and parked. Its driver, a mustachioed man who would identify himself only as Jack, acknowledged he works for Carter Outdoor Advertising. He bristled when New Times asked whether his company had secured city and state permits. "Do you think you could put up something this big without a permit? Use some common sense.... You can't put a door in a house without a permit," he gripes. "Let this grass grow more than two inches and the city gives you a fine. You can't do nothing in this city without meeting the requirements of the city, county, and state."
Although the billboard ordinances haven't changed since 1985, there has been an enormous transformation of Miami-Dade. Aesthetically minded commissioners like Beverly Phillips have all but disappeared. She wonders where all the anti-billboard soldiers have gone. "Are there enough citizens groups around to fight this kind of thing anymore? Used to be we had a lot of groups out there. But they've all fallen apart," she laments. "You get to the point where you can't do anything about this, so you stop worrying about it and go on and do other things. I'm going to Greece next week." Who knows? As gridlock grows, maybe today's expressway travelers will want even more Brobdingnagian babes to block that boring sky.