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South Pasadena to defend its mural

A judge will hear arguments in the case involving the 14- by 20-foot sign, a $120,000 project.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002

SOUTH PASADENA -- The city will have to fight to finish its new mural, now just three weeks from completion.

Thanks to a group of residents led by City Hall critic Dan Calabria, a judge will hear arguments on whether the Department of Transportation illegally permitted a billboard-sized sign promoting the city of South Pasadena.

What was envisioned as a project to beautify South Pasadena has turned into a divisive situation that pits the mayor, city attorney and other sign advocates against Calabria and his supporters. Calabria's group has formed a new organization called South Pasadena Voters Watch and started selling T-shirts that say: "No Butt-Ugly Billboards."

In response, the city's code enforcement officer warned the group that it needs to collect sales tax on its T-shirts.

Calabria argues that DOT did not follow its own procedures when it gave South Pasadena permission to build the 14- by 20-foot sign on a large DOT traffic median in front of Palms of Pasadena Hospital. The sign will cost $60,000, plus an additional $60,000 for the new landscaping that will surround it. South Pasadena City Attorney Linda Hallas said the city believes Calabria has no standing to oppose the DOT permit. In an e-mail that DOT lawyer Robert Burdick wrote to Calabria, Burdick said DOT will also challenge Calabria on whether he has standing to fight the permit.

"They've circled the wagons," Calabria said. "They are all now protecting each other."

DOT spokeswoman Marian Scorza would say only that DOT plans to "defend our action to have the sign installed."

Calabria argues that the city has hurried work on the mural so it will be complete before his group can get a court injunction to stop it or persuade the DOT to withdraw its permit. But Hallas said she is unconcerned about Calabria's ability to stop the work.

"We don't really see that as a possibility, to tell you the truth," said Hallas, who pointed out that the project is budgeted for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. She said that should explain why the city is finishing the mural now.

Calabria complained that DOT did not tell the city to complete a traffic engineering study before granting the permit for the sign. After issuing the permit, DOT agreed that the study should have been required, so the city paid $2,200 for a study that showed the sign would not impede traffic, Hallas said.

Hallas said DOT asked for the study only "after being harassed by Mr. Calabria."

In a letter to Burdick, Calabria urged DOT to halt work on the sign while the complaint is heard by a judge.

"FDOT is clearly responsible for having misadvised the city by not following long-standing required approval process requirements," Calabria wrote. "Now FDOT must act responsibly by issuing a cease and desist order to halt this project. If FDOT refuses or neglects to do so, it is clearly negligent, irresponsible and acting in bad faith."

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