One of the biggest problems facing the billboard industry is the tree. Trees growing next to highways can get in the industry's business, literally. Sometimes drivers passing by can't see the billboards for the trees.
Right now Florida law says that billboard companies can cut down trees growing on the state's roadsides for up to 500 feet from a billboard — so long as they get a permit from the state, pay money to a fund for planting more trees elsewhere, and tear down a certain number of billboards that don't meet state standards.
State Sen. Greg Evers wants to change all that. Evers, R-Baker, is sponsoring a bill that would let billboard companies decide for themselves whether they want to make up for chopping down trees that belong to taxpayers.
The billboard companies would still need a permit, which would cost no more than $25. But that's all.
The decision about paying the state any money for the trees would be up to the company, according to SB 1570, which is slated for a vote in the Senate Budget Committee today. And there would be no requirement to give up any billboards.
Environmental groups say the bill could result in the destruction of thousands of trees on state land, trees worth millions of dollars to the taxpayers. "There is no justification for a private company going onto public land and cutting public trees," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.
Evers did not respond to messages left at his office and on his cell phone. Department of Transportation officials were unable to provide the St. Petersburg Times with a dollar figure on how much the state might lose.
Charlotte Audie of the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association said the bill grew out of Gov. Rick Scott's call to end regulations that hamper the growth of Florida's economy.
"The new administration was looking for ways to streamline the regulatory process, so that's the reason we brought this up," said Audie, the association president.
However, she said, "It's not our intent not to pay" for cutting down trees. She predicted that any billboard company that tries to avoid paying for cutting down state-owned trees would be denied a permit.
But that's not what happened two years ago when, according to DOT records, Sen. Evers helped a billboard company in his district avoid paying a dime.
In 2009, Bill Salter Advertising wanted DOT permits to cut down more than 2,000 trees blocking the view of about 100 of its signs along Interstate 10 through the Florida Panhandle. Some of the trees were classified as "heritage oaks," said Bill Brinton, of the antibillboard group Scenic America, who later filed a complaint with the DOT.
Salter did not want to pay any money to the state for chopping down those trees, according to internal DOT e-mails. Company executives also made it clear they did not want to give up any signs that didn't fit existing state regulations — especially not two signs for every one where they cut down a tree, as the law requires.
DOT records show they sought help from Evers. As Salter executive David McCurdy explained in a May 21, 2009, e-mail to a DOT consultant who questioned the deal, Evers helped set up a meeting with Crist administration DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos to argue in favor of special treatment for Salter. At that meeting, "They agreed and we were granted these permits," McCurdy wrote.
In a July 14, 2009, e-mail, a DOT official in Milton wrote: "Reps from Salter Adv. went to Tall. and met with Sec. of Trans …and she gave them the go ahead for cutting these sites."
Kopelousos, now the county manager of Clay County, did not return a call seeking a comment.
The area cleared around some billboards was more than an acre. Photos of the areas cut down show that one billboard featured a picture of Evers holding a gun and saying that he belongs to the National Rifle Association.
In the past 10 years, Evers has received $5,000 in campaign contributions from the billboard industry. Since 1996 the industry has donated more than $1.6 million to various candidates, state party organizations and political action committees in Florida. Many of those contributions were classified as "in-kind" — in other words, the billboard companies provided space on their billboards to candidates without charge.
Under Evers' bill, an application for a permit to clear-cut the trees "must include one of the following, at the election of the applicant" and then lists three choices: a plan showing which trees will be cut, a contribution to the state's own fund for planting more trees, or a combination of both. A budget committee analysis says that means any payment would be "voluntary."
The DOT currently has 90 days to make a permit decision. That would be shortened to 30.
The bill exists in more than one form. In addition to his own bill, Evers has attached the same language onto a more general transportation bill, SB 1180 sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, that is currently awaiting a final vote by the full Senate.
So far, Evers' push to cut the regulations on cutting trees has been noncontroversial, according to billboard industry lobbyist Pete Dunbar. The lobbyist said that Evers, a peanut farmer, may be pushing the changes because he advertises along the roadside too "and I think he's had some cross words with the DOT about them taking down his signs."
Times staff researcher Natalie Watson and staff writer Diane Steinle contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]