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Commission Approves Massive Electronic Billboards Downtown, But Are They Legal?

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After two hours of discussion, the Miami City Commission this afternoon voted 4-1 to grant final approval for two skyscraper-tall digital billboards to be built atop a new parking garage next to the Arsht Center.

Only Frank Carollo voted against the plan after expressing his concern that the commission considered it for final approval just seven days after first voting on it. "What is the rush?" Carollo asked.

Chairman Marc Sarnoff, the plan's principal backer, had an unexpected rebuttal to Carollo's worries: LeBron is coming.

"When we signed LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the paradigm shifted for Miami," Sarnoff said just before the vote. "We're going to have 42 Super Bowls coming through the city of Miami next year. There's going to be a helicopter before 40 of those games looking down at this project going up and it's going to put us on the map."

The project, which you can learn more about at miamicitysquare.com, will include a multi-story parking garage topped by two signs that would rise as high as 40 stories.

The city will get $2.2 million annual in permitting fees from the developer, Mark Siffin, as well as $8 million toward the city's Museum Park project.

Siffin had run into opposition from the Venetian Condo Association, but his attorneys reported before the meeting that the association had decided to support the project in exchange for $300,000 toward garnering new murals for the condo.

The commissioners seemed to leave a few gigantic legal questions unanswered, however.

Eston "Dusty" Melton, a longtime lobbyist who was central to crafting Miami-Dade's legislation governing signs, presented a number of ordinances that appeared to show that the towering structures aren't legal.

County code prohibits signs that aren't expressly regulated, for example, and electronic billboards aren't mentioned in the code. There is also federal legislation barring such signs near U.S. 1. And although the city opted out of part of the county code, Melton argues that other parts of the code still prohibit the signs.

"This history of this commission is to empower and approve behavior by sign companies and developers ... who brandish city approval that runs counter to the law in exchange for giant wads of cash," he said. "Some of us fear that's what we're seeing again here today."

Sarnoff hailed the project as a new signature development for Miami.

"There really isn't this type of project anywhere else," Sarnoff said. "We're usually a following city, not a city of creativity ... Never before have we taken the lead. Never before have we said, 'This is an iconic structure that no one else has.'"  

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