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Billboard Verdict: Illegal!

Extracting a straightforward answer from the City of Miami was like pulling teeth, but at last came a confession: The new billboards plastering the walls of the city's high-rise buildings are illegal. At press time 21 of the signs, which contain gargantuan images of beer and vodka bottles, gyrating iPod iPodsters, sports cars, and guys in swimsuits, were polluting views from Brickell to the Design District. They join 31 free-standing billboards that have gone up in that area since the Eighties, despite a countywide ordinance that prohibits any whatsoever between I-95 and Biscayne Bay, and allows just ten along expressways running through the City of Miami.

Whether a billboard is on a wall, pole, or anything else, Miami's own laws require a permit to put it up. Building department director Hector Lima provided a list of all such permits issued since the wall billboards began appearing a year and a half ago. Three companies are responsible for nearly all 21: Wallscape Media, Metro Lights, and Dade Media. "If they are not listed on that list," Lima says sternly, "then there are no permits issued for those companies." None of the three firms is on the list.

That's odd, because in an interview earlier this month Barry Rush, the CEO of Metro Lights, assured New Times that when he arrived in Miami from New York, "the first thing we did was file for permits" ("If Signs Are Outlawed," December 9). He said he did so after meeting with Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, the mayor's chief of staff, Francois Illas, and other officials.

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Following that meeting, Wallscape Media and Metro Lights, at the mayor's request, contributed a hefty $10,000 each to the bond campaign that netted $275 million for new downtown museums.

Following that selfless act, city manager Joe Arriola asked the Miami Commission to pass an ordinance that would legalize the illegal wall billboards. Arriola put the measure on hold only after county manager George Burgess informed him that, if passed, the ordinance would violate the county's billboard law.

Luckily for Rush and the other purveyors of wall billboards, city officials seem content to ignore this new trend in zoning-law corruption, even though Miami-Dade's planning and zoning director, Diane O'Quinn-Williams, confirms that the wall billboards are prohibited by county law.

Requests for comment from Barry Rush and his counterparts at Dade Media and Wallscape Media went unanswered. Illas, the former mayoral chief of staff whom Rush has now hired as a lobbyist, pleads ignorance regarding his client's lack of permits. (Illas's gig: Persuade county commissioners to legalize the illegal wall billboards.) Adopting the dodgy demeanor that has long enshrouded the billboard industry, Illas won't admit that Rush's signs are illegal. "I'm not a lawyer," he hedges, then submits that the countywide ordinance is "interpretive" as regards billboards on walls. "You've got to get a bunch of lawyers in a room with a judge and then have somebody give us an interpretation. For me to give an opinion doesn't have value because I don't know all the laws."

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