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Billboards to sprout after lawsuit's settled

"We might as well not have a sign ordinance," says one county commissioner of the settlement.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published January 22, 2004

After a 20-year hiatus from Hillsborough County, new billboards sites are on the verge of staging a dramatic comeback.

Two weeks ago, county commissioners settled a lawsuit brought by Maverick Media that challenged the county's 1985 ban on billboards on county roads The deal gives the company conditional approval to add 29 billboards in the county.

Eighteen billboards would be allowed along Interstates 75 and 275. In the next 60 days, commissioners will agree on another 11 sites - mostly along strips such as Dale Mabry Highway, Hillsborough Avenue, the Veterans Expressway or Ehrlich Road - before the lawsuit is officially settled.

This comes after the county settled earlier lawsuits with two of the largest billboard companies in the country, Viacom and Clear Channel, that allowed them to keep their 65 billboards in place despite the ban.

Commissioners Pat Frank, Tom Scott, Jim Norman, Ronda Storms and Ken Hagan approved the Maverick Media settlement. Commissioners Jan Platt and Kathy Castor voted no.

"I think it's too generous," Platt said after the vote Jan. 7. "We might as well not have a sign ordinance."

Commissioners will vote again in two months on whether to approve the new billboard locations, which would complete the settlement.

On Wednesday, commissioners approved freezing all billboard applications for 60 days so that commissioners can settle on future sites during this period.

Marion Hilliard, the executive vice president of Citizens for Scenic Florida, which opposes billboards, was stunned to hear about the proposed Maverick Media settlement.

"I beg your pardon?" Hilliard said. "How did that happen? When they passed their sign ordinance in the 1980s, it was considered a model for how to pass a ban in a heavily populated area. Now there doesn't appear to be much left of it."

Assistant County Attorney Ray Allen told commissioners the county only had a 50-50 chance of beating Maverick Media.

"The risk would be fairly significant to the county if we were to proceed forward with the lawsuit," Allen said during the Jan. 7 meeting.

If the county lost, it would have to pay all legal fees and face more than 60 new billboards, Allen said.

For Frank, who voted to enforce the billboard ban in 1999, that was enough to rattle her.

"If we don't have secure footing in terms of our legal arguments, then I think we have to face the reality that we have to compromise on this," Frank said.

Last year, the 11th Circuit upheld billboard bans in St. Petersburg and Clearwater against the same lawyer, Atlanta attorney Adam Webb.

San Diego lawyer Randal Morrison specializes in defending bans on billboards. He said Webb has made a lucrative career out of challenging antibillboard ordinances.

"He has 40 of these lawsuits that I know of currently filed across the nation," said Morrison, who is involved in four of those cases in California. "He does it enough so that if he loses 80 percent of the time, he still makes enough. Billboard permits are worth huge amounts of money."

Morrison said Hillsborough had better odds than those handicapped by Allen.

"Without any possible doubt, they would have won," Morrison said. "But Webb is a smart guy. He's skilled at bluffing, I'll say that much."

[Last modified January 22, 2004, 01:46:01]


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