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Bill could thwart billboard removal

The measure would require local governments to compensate the owners.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Hundreds of roadside billboards slated to come down across Florida may remain indefinitely, under a controversial plan to make local governments pay for removal.

The measure, slipped into a House transportation bill Wednesday morning, could thwart numerous local governments that have tried to bring down the billboards.

Governments in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have actively battled the billboard industry for years, trying to eliminate billboards by giving their owners as much as 10 years to earn revenue from the signs before forcing their removal.

But many of those plans, known as "amortization," would be obsolete under the House measure. The new plan, however, would leave intact legal settlements with individual billboard advertisers.

The city of Clearwater has been fighting billboards since the mid-1980s. Since then, the city has reduced the number of billboards in town from more than 40 to 11, according to Bill Johnson, president of Citizens for a Scenic Florida.

But the remaining billboards, which are supposed to come down under a city ordinance, could remain indefinitely under the House plan.

Local governments that want to remove signs but do not have agreements with their owners would have to pay owners tens of thousands of dollars per billboard.

"They just overturned seven or 10 years of planning by local communities," Johnson said Wednesday after hearing of the House action.

More than 200 billboards in Pinellas are scheduled to come down under amortization plans, which the billboard industry often has ignored or challenged in court. Under the new plan, advertisers who have refused to comply with local ordinances could suddenly be exempt from them.

For Clearwater, the issue is complicated by something of an internal battle in Tallahassee.

Pete Dunbar, a lobbyist for the city of Clearwater, is at odds with the city over the billboard issue. Dunbar, who also lobbies for the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association, is pushing the measure to force cities to pay for removing the signs.

So, Clearwater hired a second lobbyist, Kathy Castor, to counter Dunbar. Castor said Wednesday the measure is "bad behavior" that "rewards outdoor advertisers for not obeying the law."

Dunbar, chair of the Florida Commission on Ethics, said outdoor advertisers are simply looking for "just compensation" and that the measure will require local governments to follow the same policy of state and federal governments in removing billboards.

"Our goal here is to protect our property and not have it taken unless we are properly paid for it," Dunbar said.

Kraig Conn, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, said his group and others are working with Dunbar and lawmakers to find a compromise before the end of the legislative session next week.

As it stands, Conn said, the measure "could potentially affect every city." Because it takes away the threat of removal, he said, it eliminates incentives for billboard advertisers to reach settlements with local governments.

-- Staff writer Tim Nickens contributed to this report.

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