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Change may curtail billboard ban // Plan would subject roads to federal law

County road planners today are to consider a seemingly small bureaucratic change that could take a big bite out of Clearwater's future ban on billboards. If approved, it probably would mean that the city would have to pay billboard owners to take down their signs along Missouri Avenue, Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett said.

Billboards on roads in Clearwater other than U.S. 19 and portions of State Road 580 are scheduled to come down by 1992 or 1996.

Billboards along Missouri would be the only ones affected by the proposal, which would change the designations of certain roads to "primary" under the federal classification system.

"It would really undermine the effect of Clearwater's code, which is to remove clutter," said Bill Jonson, leader of a citizens' group that pushed for Clearwater's billboard ban. "Changing the designations of the roadways is probably not the thing to do."

The change that the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is considering would make several roads eligible for a bigger pot of federal money but also subject them to federal highway laws.

The Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) has requested the change for several roads in the county: Alt. U.S. 19 from St. Petersburg to the Pasco County line. That includes Missouri Avenue, Fort Harrison Avenue and Edgewater Drive in Clearwater and Dunedin, then Alt. U.S. 19 N. U.S. 19 between Ulmerton Road and Park Boulevard.

Fourth Street from downtown St. Petersburg to Gandy Boulevard.

But the change affects signs only in Clearwater, which approved strict regulations on billboards in 1985 and again in 1989. It also affects any future billboard bans in other cities along those roads, said Clearwater City Commissioner Lee Regulski, who also is a member of the MPO.

In 1985, Clearwater decided to ban billboards except on U.S. 19, portions of State Road 580 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard east of Highland Avenue.

In 1989, the City Commission extended the ban to Gulf-to-Bay, spurred by a citizens' group that collected more than 6,000 signatures supporting the idea.

With each ban, the city gave billboard owners seven years' notice so they could recoup their investments in the signs before having to scrap them.

That provision would be affected by the change, said Bennett, who advises the MPO on legal matters.

"They would be able to make billboards go away, but they would be required to pay compensation," Bennett said, under the federal highway laws for "primary" roads.

"Until the DOT can show there is more money to be received, then I see no reason to make a change at this point," Regulski said. "If there is going to be a change, I hope they will ensure that the city of Clearwater's wishes are respected."

The MPO is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. today at the County Courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater.

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