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Mayors council okays billboard limits

Billboards won't disappear under a proposed sign code approved Wednesday by a consortium of county leaders _ but they may be a little harder to find. The sign code, approved unanimously by the Pinellas County Council of Mayors, would permit billboards only on interstate highways and other roads essential to statewide or regional travel _ and only then in industrial areas along those roads, said David Walker, a program planner for Pinellas County.

"Initially, we were talking about a flat-out ban," said Bob McEwen, mayor of Indian Shores and secretary of the mayors council. "But we thought that was just unreasonable. People have a right to do business, and they (billboards) do perform a public service."

Under the proposal, billboards would be allowed in industrial areas along U.S. 19, except for a stretch between Ulmerton Road and Park Boulevard. Much of Pinellas County's industry lies within that exempted area.

Billboards also would be allowed along the smattering of industrial areas along Interstate 275 and along Gandy Boulevard, State Road 580 and Ulmerton Road, all east of U.S. 19.

But billboards would be banned everywhere else, including Gulf to Bay Boulevard, Ulmerton Road west of U.S. 19 and Park Boulevard.

County Commissioner Charles Rainey issued municipal leaders a challenge last year: Draft a sign ordinance most communities can live with, and the County Commission will adopt it.

More than a year in the making, the sign ordinance is 44 pages long and includes detailed regulations for everything from pennants and pavement markings to banners and balloons.

A committee of mayors and city administrators will make minor changes to the "model ordinance" next week before submitting it to the county. If approved by the County Commission, the ordinance would affect all of Pinellas County, including the 24 municipalities.

Municipal governments will be bound by the ordinance, said David Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council. But local leaders also can draft their own sign codes that are more restrictive than the countywide ordinance _ or to respond to particular needs.

"As a matter of law, cities can exempt themselves" from the ordinance, Healey said. "The board (County Commission) has no authority to regulate without concurrence. The objective of going through the mayors council was to generate a consensus so that wouldn't happen."

Like a sign ordinance passed by the county last year, the model ordinance would ban several types of portable signs, such as balloons, banners, streamers, sandwich sign boards and signs that "move, revolve, twirl, rotate (or) flash."

To comply with the ordinance, billboards that are permitted must be no more than 25 feet tall. The ordinance allows sign companies to amortize their investments over seven years if they are forced to remove the structures.

William C. Jonson, who, as president of the Citizens for a Better Clearwater, lobbied strenuously for a strong sign code, says he is pleased with the outcome of the yearlong negotiations that produced the ordinance.

"I thought it reflected . . . reasonable compromises," Jonson said. "Maybe I would have done one or two things a little differently. But it's something all the citizens of Pinellas County can live with. It surely will be a major step in reducing the visual clutter we see along roads."

Although Jonson had supported a total ban on billboards, he said the proposed ordinance is satisfactory because it greatly reduces the number and size of such signs.

"In an industrial area, a billboard 25 feet high would not be any more disruptive than a parking lot of paving vehicles," Jonson said. "That's kind of hard to challenge."

Companies that own billboards have challenged the measure, however.

S. Wayne Mock, vice president and general manager of the Patrick Media Group Inc. in Clearwater, could not be reached for comment.

However, in a recent letter to Walter Stubbs, the mayor of Treasure Island who helped draft the model ordinance for the mayors council, Mock described the policy of amortizing billboards over seven years as unfair and unlawful.

"Even if we were to agree (which I don't) that signs and billboards were unattractive and ugly, it wouldn't justify an "end run' around the Constitution to accomplish those ends," Mock wrote. "The end doesn't justify the means."