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City's law regulating billboards is upheld

A Georgia company sued to force Clearwater to allow eight billboards along two major thoroughfares, citing constitutional guarantees of free speech in support of its case.

By JENNIFER FARRELL
Published December 6, 2003

CLEARWATER - A federal appellate court has sided with the city against a Georgia company that wanted to strike down Clearwater's sign regulations to pave the way for new billboards.

In a 15-page ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley F. Birch Jr. found that Granite State Outdoor Advertising Inc. is not entitled to challenge the rules or to receive attorney's fees.

The order overturned, in part, a ruling last year by U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. and effectively upheld Clearwater's prohibition on billboards.

On Friday, city officials celebrated the victory and criticized Granite State for using "bully" tactics.

"I'm glad that we dug in and fought it," said Mayor Brian Aungst.

An attorney for Granite State could not be reached Friday.

Granite State had filed federal lawsuits in Tampa against Clearwater, St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach, contending that each city's sign rules place unconstitutional limits on free speech.

The company had hoped to force the three cities to allow 19 new billboards that would have been up to 85 feet tall with 672-square-foot sign faces.

In Clearwater, Granite State requested permission to put up eight billboards, about 65 feet high and possibly taller, on U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

Before filing the lawsuits, Granite State had applied for billboard permits. Instead of appealing when the permits were denied, the company sued Clearwater in August 2001.

Local businesses such as Lenny's, Dairy Kurl and Clearwater Mattress had agreed to let Granite State's billboards go up on small portions of their land, which business owners said they would lease for $8,000 to $15,000 annually.

A city ban on such signs has been in place since 1996, when a seven-year grace period for demolition expired.

Clearwater City Commissioner Bill Jonson, who is president of Citizens for a Scenic Florida, called the appellate ruling a victory also for other local governments that might be intimidated by Granite State.

"I'm still just so astounded," he said, "that the company would come into Clearwater when we haven't allowed billboards for years and years and years and try to bully their way in."

Granite State has never used one of its permits to put up a billboard. Instead, the company sells permits to large advertising companies such as Clear Channel Outdoor, formerly Eller Media.

- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 6, 2003, 01:33:58]


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