In January 2004, Kenneth Bryan drove from Tampa to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street S to check on two billboards he owned.
When he arrived, he found his signs on the ground, posts broken off, and nobody willing to take responsibility for the destruction.
"My blood pressure was so high; I could hardly stand it when I saw it," said Bryan, who owns an outdoor advertising company, Bryan Media. "There was a crane operator on the site. He just threw up his arms and told me, 'The city told them to do it.' "
That winter day was the beginning of a battle between Bryan and the city that continues today. It has cost Bryan thousands of dollars in legal fees and consumed countless hours of city time.
Bryan alleges that the city of St. Petersburg destroyed his billboards without due process when it erected a monument denoting the northwest boundary of the Dome Industrial Park, and that it continues to use code enforcement to deny him just compensation.
"They just throw the laws out and do what they want to do," he said. "They become the sheriff and take the law into their own hands."
City officials counter that Bryan's signs were never permitted and therefore illegal, and that they were within their rights to remove them.
Bryan acquired the billboards and related leases in March 2003. The billboards in question stood on a CSX Railroad right of way. Bryan had a valid lease for the signs with CSX through their agent Viacom Outdoor Inc. when the city knocked them down.
Ron Barton was the director for the city's Economic Development and Property Management Department from February 2001 through February 2005. In this capacity, Barton possessed the authority to administer policies related to the Dome Industrial Park in Midtown, a key part of the city's economic development plan for the area.
Barton gave the order to remove the signs.
He began looking into the legality of the billboards in the fall of 2003, according to court documents. At the time that he ordered the billboards demolished, Barton knew Bryan owned the signs and that he had a valid lease. Barton asked Rene Ruggiero, the city's billboard examiner at the time, to research the legality of the signs.
Court documents say that on Dec. 16, 2003, Ruggiero told Barton that the signs appeared to have no permits and that she believed they were illegal. At this point, Barton instructed the director of permitting for the city to enforce proceedings against CSX and Bryan.
Normally, the city sends property owners a notice of code violations, allowing the violator to remedy the situation or prove compliance, but Bryan never received notification before the billboards were knocked down.
The city argues that it had the right to remove the signs without notifying Bryan because of "exigent circumstances," meaning that the matter required immediate aid or action.
"The circumstances in that particular case is that we had a contractor marshaled at the site for a significant installation of a monument. We needed access to the site, and I made a judgment call that we could remove the signs to get access to the site," Barton said in a deposition.
Bryan said he tried for several months after the billboards were bulldozed to get an explanation from the city, but nobody returned his calls, so Bryan replaced the billboards in June 2004 and sent the city an invoice for lost advertising revenue and replacement costs.
The billboards still stand at the site today.
After he replaced the billboards, the city sent Bryan a violation notice in connection with the signs in question, as well as five others he owned in the area. The city also cited Clear Channel and another unknown party in connection with a sign in the same vicinity, according to court documents.
A city enforcement board hearing in November 2004 ruled that the signs were illegally erected. Bryan appealed to the Pinellas 6th Circuit Court, which reversed the CEB's decision and remanded the case to the board.
The city took no further action until it sent Bryan a new notice of violation in October 2007, after the city bought the land from CSX.
While the case made its way through code enforcement hearings, Bryan sued in Florida state court claiming, among other things, that the city took his property without due process. The city had the case removed to Federal District Court because of the constitutional issues involved.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven dismissed the case, ruling that while the city acted without due process, Bryan could not prove the city acted with constitutionally impermissible motives. She also ruled that since Bryan could not produce proof of proper permitting, the signs were illegal and he had no legitimate property interest to protect.
Bryan appealed the decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bryan's attorney, Rory Weiner, expects to present oral arguments as early as this fall.
Weiner argues that if the city wants the signs removed, they should compensate Bryan for the loss of his property and that they are using the code issue to avoid doing so. He points out that the original signs, valued at about $15,000 each, stood at that location for more than 40 years and city officials never took any interest in them until they decided they wanted to erect a monument.
"It seems reasonable to believe that billboards at the same location for over 40 years are okay," Weiner said.
John Flemming, spokesman for the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association, said that while he could not comment on the case specifically, the law generally allows the owner of nonconforming signs to maintain them to the standards to which they were built until they are removed by an "act of God."
He added that if a government entity needs to remove a sign, they should compensate the owner.
"There is a well-established property right in the Constitution," he said. "If you deprive a property owner of money-producing property, you should pay just compensation. That's common sense."
Weiner contends that the city clearly violated Bryan's constitutional right to due process when it knocked down the signs without notification, and he doesn't think the city's desire to put up a monument rises to the level of exigent circumstances.
"How long had they known that monument was going up before they tore Ken's signs down? It's not like it was a health crisis. On a scale of severity this is a zero on a scale of one to 10. They were just putting up a monument," he said.
Milton Galbraith Jr., the assistant city attorney working on the case, said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Galbraith did say that the cost to the city only amounted to $1,678, but that he has spent a significant amount of time on the case.
Galbraith said citizens expect the city to enforce its codes.
"If it is worth the time for City Council to pass ordinances, it's worth our time to enforce them," he said.
Weiner said the city would have to pay Bryan's legal fees if he prevails on any issue in his suit.
Bryan said he will continue to fight.
"I'm standing up for people who can't, and I'm going to keep going as long as I can," he said. "It's the right thing to do. You just don't go out and destroy people's property."
Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or firstname.lastname@example.org.