Ah, Miami -- wide-open sky, sparkling bay, balmy breezes caressing the palms, poincianas, billboards. Yes, the city's tree canopy may be pathetic, but not to worry. Miami is poised to nourish a canopy of a different sort: It is on the verge of becoming one of the most billboard-friendly cities anywhere.
Over the past fifteen years nearly all Florida's major cities -- including Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale -- have removed hundreds of billboards and banned the construction of new ones. Miami Beach has long prohibited any such signs.
But the City of Miami, answering to its own special muse, is moving in the opposite direction.
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The planning and zoning department will soon recommend changes in the city code that will transform extensive tracts of Miami's urban landscape, especially along expressways, into a vast billboard-delivery system. "It's outrageous that this is the way we're going when we want to consider ourselves one of the choice, world-class cities," fumes Sallye Jude, a member of Citizens for a Scenic Florida and owner of the Miami River Inn.
Miami officials haven't always been so devoted to enhancing the city's billboard canopy. Believe it or not, the current billboard law is fairly strict about the number, height, location, and orientation of all billboards. They are allowed only in areas the zoning code designates as "industrial" and "liberal commercial." The rules governing expressway billboards are even stricter. That part of the law, based on a 1985 ordinance, allows "a maximum of ten" along those portions of I-95, I-395, I-195, State Road 836, and State Road 112 that pass within city limits. In addition none can be within 200 feet of an expressway. All other billboards within 660 feet of any expressway must be "faced away from such highway." Moreover the code states: "No outdoor advertising sign which faces a limited access highway including expressways ... shall be erected, constructed, altered, maintained, replaced, or relocated within 660 feet of any such highways ... easterly of I-95 and southerly of 36th Street."
But then a funny thing happened. Starting around 1997 zoning administrator Juan Gonzalez began issuing permits for expressway billboards in violation of the city's own law. Last year New Times discovered the maximum of 10 was exceeded by at least 21 ("Everywhere a Sign," March 23, 1999). Two recipients of the wayward permits were Rex Hodges, a vice president for Carter Outdoor Advertising (based in Fort Myers), and Andy Hancock, owner of Miami Outdoor Advertising.
Last November city commissioners empowered the two men to review the very ordinance they were violating. For the past two months they and five other members of the Outdoor Advertising Review Board have been drafting a liberal new sign ordinance in conference rooms at the city's Riverside Center building. A typewritten blurb in a glass case inside the entrance to Miami City Hall was the only advance public notice for most of the weekly meetings. The board is set to present its recommendations to city commissioners on Thursday, March 8. The planning and zoning department also will present a similar set of recommendations.
It is no wonder Hodges and Hancock were enthusiastic about their newfound legislative duties. Hodges, who is Commissioner Tomas Regalado's appointee, and Hancock, the board's at-large member, put up the majority of the new expressway billboards. Carter Outdoor, Hodges's company, owns at least five in the no-zone "easterly of I-95 and southerly of 36th Street," and Hancock has two in that area. Nor is it surprising that three other members of the board are backing them. They include Commissioner Willy Gort's appointee, Steve Alexander, a representative for Eller Media, which owns hundreds of signs in South Florida, including most of the ten legal billboards along Miami's expressways; Mayor Joe Carollo's pick, Lucia Dougherty, a development lawyer (and former Miami city attorney), whose clients have included sign companies; and Commissioner Art Teele's designee, Bobbie Mumford, who runs a small public-relations firm. Commissioner Joe Sanchez's delegate, José Cancela, president of Radio Unica (WRNU-AM), attended only one meeting.
The lone review board member who supports removing the illegal signs is Commissioner Johnny Winton's appointee, Steve Hagen, who operates a Website that offers accommodations for travelers. Hagen's fellow board members voted down his motion aimed at halting the panel's work until city staff provided a list of all illegal billboards in Miami. Also nixed: a Hagen request that city staff provide an accounting of fees and penalties collected on legal and illegal signs. "My recommendation is that the city commission not do anything on this until they know what's going on," he said. "What gets me is that we have all these illegal billboards out there, and the industry and city staff are sitting there changing the law without any regard for the current ordinance."
In late January planning and zoning director Ana Gelabert-Sanchez sat down with the board to discuss its recommendations. She resisted a push by Hodges and Hancock to increase the legal size of signs from 750 square feet to 950 square feet and opposed their dream of eliminating the 200-foot buffer zone along expressways. Gelabert-Sanchez also insisted on stringent landscaping requirements. But she supported a section of the board's draft in which the ten-billboard maximum along expressways magically disappears.
By the February 2 meeting, which Gelabert-Sanchez was unable to attend, the planning and zoning department had dropped its insistence on landscaping. Dougherty had a question for zoning administrator Gonzalez, who apologized for Gelabert-Sanchez's absence. "Did you get the impression from the last meeting that Ana was getting a sense of what we're trying to accomplish?"
Gonzalez allowed as to how she did. "Ana is willing to waive the landscape requirement," he reported. He explained if a billboard was located in a parking lot or suffered from some other "hardship," the sign's owner could provide landscaping for the city elsewhere, "at the discretion of city staff." He bore other good tidings: He said the planning and zoning department was willing to allow billboard structures in commercial zones to rise 40 feet rather than the current 30-foot limitation. The review board had wanted 50. "In the interest of compromising," Hancock drawled, "I'd be willing to go with Ana's 40 feet." All agreed. (Hagen was absent.)
Hodges still was not satisfied, however, and pressed Gonzalez on another obstacle to freedom of billboard expression: the 200-foot buffer zone along expressways. But Gonzalez would not yield. He said the city administration was concerned about a "clutter effect." Then he quietly posed a question for Hodges. "How would it benefit the industry by eliminating the buffer zone?" he asked.
"Well, if we were to lose one of our sites," Hodges began.
"Because of development," Dougherty interjected.
"Because of development," Hodges continued, "then we would have more options for relocating the sign."
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But board member Steve Alexander concluded that battle had been lost. "She's not going to budge," he grumbled.
Hancock agreed. "It's a special course she took in college: Buffer 101," he joked.
After the meeting Gonzalez interpreted what would happen to the currently illegal expressway signs if the city commission approves the planning and zoning department's proposals. "Some signs would have to come down in height," he ventured. That's because some of the Carter billboards Hodges installed are even taller than the more lenient 40-foot rule Gelabert-Sanchez accepted. And if the commission approved the Outdoor Advertising Review Board's recommendations? "The ones that are illegal now will be legalized," Gonzalez said. "And more will go up."