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    Billboard lawyers to county: It'll cost

    As Pinellas officials discuss hiring top-notch legal talent, the industry threatens a bruising court battle over removing signs.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Pinellas County is outmanned and outgunned in its fight to bring down billboards, facing an industry with deep pockets and top-notch legal talent, county lawyers said Monday.

    That's why they want the county to bring in a hired gun of its own, even though, they said, an outside lawyer could cost $300,000.

    The industry's legal eagles had a quick retort to that proposal Monday.

    "Your estimate of legal fees is way under," said Don Mastry. "Multiply by three."

    Industry representatives showed up in force at a workshop Monday, telling commissioners they want to play nice, but promising a bruising battle if the county won't compromise. Mastry was a symbol of industry resources: He's executive partner in the St. Petersburg office of Holland & Knight, the state's largest law firm, with about 1,200 lawyers.

    With about 10 industry representatives lined up to talk to them at Monday's workshop, commissioners got a snapshot of what they're fighting in their effort to remove 217 billboards from roads in unincorporated parts of the county.

    The industry's message went something like this:

    We're nice people who want to compromise. Our billboards help local charities and the tourism industry. Only a few zealots really hate billboards, anyway.

    And if you fight us, it will cost you big-time.

    "It is not fair," Mastry said. "This ordinance will cause people to lose jobs and lose income."

    Mastry represents Eller Media Co., which owns 120, more than half, of the disputed billboards. Those billboards are worth about $38-million, Mastry said.

    Billboard companies sued the county last year after the county voted to enforce its 1992 ordinance to ban billboards on roads other than U.S. 19, Interstate 275 and Gandy and Roosevelt boulevards. The county originally gave the companies until 1999 to bring down the billboards.

    The companies want the county to allow existing billboards to remain, or to compensate the companies for bringing them down.

    Jim Bennett, the chief assistant county attorney, told commissioners it would cost about $100,000 to pay an outside lawyer if the case settles within a year, and $250,000 to $300,000 to pay the same lawyer if the case goes through the courts.

    Officials with the Pinellas Animal Foundation and the Pinellas Association for Retarded Children told commissioners how much that free billboard advertising helps their agencies. An industry pollster told commissioners that 84 percent of those polled say government shouldn't spend time and money removing billboards.

    Industry representatives stressed that they want to reach a settlement with the county without a long legal fight.

    "What has died here in this process is communication," said lawyer Roy Harrell. "We need to see if there is a middle ground. . . . We need to exhale."

    Commissioners Susan Latvala and Calvin Harris also said the county needs to talk more with the industry to resolve the dispute.

    "Why go through all these motions when we haven't sat down and talked?" Latvala asked.

    But Bennett and County Attorney Susan Churuti said the county has tried to work with the industry. Commissioner Bob Stewart questioned what settlement the county could reach without abandoning the ordinance.

    "I even heard (the companies say) that it is morally wrong, morally wrong," for the county to bring the signs down, Stewart said.

    Stewart supported bringing in an expert lawyer. He said that it would cost less than the 30-foot-tall sand sculptures of football helmets for the Super Bowl on Clearwater Beach.

    "We just spent $650,000 on sand castles," Stewart said. "Can we not spend $100,000 on an issue of countywide importance? I don't think this is going to get easily resolved."

    County attorneys are talking to Bill Brinton, a Jacksonville lawyer who has spent more than a decade fighting billboard companies, about representing Pinellas. They will ask commissioners to approve a contract in the next few weeks.

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