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    Panel approves billboard bill

    The measure, if okayed by the full Legislature, would force local governments to pay for billboards they wanted to remove.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- A Senate committee Tuesday approved a measure that would prohibit local governments from taking down billboards without paying for them.

    Members of the Senate Committee on Transportation sent the proposal on its way, but not before urging the billboard companies and local governments to continue to iron out differences.

    Lobbyist Peter Dunbar, who represents the city of Clearwater on some issues but the billboard industry on this one, said he plans to do just that.

    "I expect we'll be talking about this til the end," Dunbar said.

    Local governments, particularly those with ordinances calling for the phasing out of billboards, oppose the bill. Clearwater City Commissioner Bill Jonson trekked to Tallahassee to tell senators why.

    "The real intent of this bill is to overturn years of decisions by local governments," Jonson said. Several billboards in Clearwater would be affected.

    Pinellas County, where billboard companies were given until this year to recoup their investment before the signs would be forced down, now would have to pay the owners for the signs. But they would have a year to work out settlement agreements on lawsuits filed before the law took effect. Such settlements, where the billboard company and the local government agree on relocation or removal terms, would be exempt from the bill.

    Hillsborough County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to a settlement ending lawsuits brought by Eller Media Inc. Under the settlement, Eller will get to keep most of its signs, located primarily along federally designated highways, but agreed to remove or relocate others within two years. That settlement also would be exempt from the bill.

    Other ordinances that simply ban future billboards would not be affected by the bill.

    The billboard issue, part of a larger bill on the Department of Transportation, has two more committee stops before it reaches the Senate floor. The House companion bill has one more stop before hitting its chamber.

    - Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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