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We paved paradise, put up billboards

When I first came to Florida 12 years ago, I was appalled at the insensitivity to beauty I found along the main thoroughfares. Instead of lush flowering shrubs, trees and flowers, which gave Florida its name, I found a mishmash of signs, billboards and condos. It was as if someone were deliberately trying to hide the real Florida under a coat of ugliness.

Luckily, we eventually crossed the Clearwater Causeway, one of the few unobstructed views around. And it drew us in. The harbor was spectacular. As we continued down Gulf Boulevard, concrete jungle surrounded us. But for intermittent T-shirt and shell shops, we could have been driving through the canyons of Manhattan. Occasionally, tiny snatches of beach or sea appeared between buildings or around bridges. Evidently, there was something out there.

So we made our way through condo-lined beach accesses. At last. Before us stretched white sand and turquoise ocean as far as the eye could see. Pelicans, blue herons and snowy white egrets dotted the water's edge. And above it all, an azure sky flecked with powder puff clouds held a brilliant sun. Paradise at last! Enough to make us move here.

Eventually, we found our little corner of paradise, tucked away in a private cove with a water view. But those visual blights that first hit us still haunted us. One of the worst was the multitude of billboards that ravaged the countryside.

According to the anti-billboard lobby, Scenic America, there are 37,000 billboards here. More than any other state! A few states have outlawed or restricted them. Their tourist economy hasn't suffered. And their residents enjoy nature unobstructed.

In addition, we have ugly signs of all sizes, shapes and colors lining Florida thoroughfares. A tourist recently wrote in the newspaper that some sections here were so rundown and unsightly, he considered going elsewhere in the future.

A couple of years ago, Indian Rocks Beach considered adopting a sign ordinance modeled on Sanibel Island's. The paper reported that "angry business owners" complained the city "would ruin their livelihoods."

It's unfortunate these interests don't realize that people are drawn to tasteful signs denoting reliability and comfort, not raucous, multicolored displays. Attractive, uniform signs would give all businesses an equal playing field. Laws could be written to phase out old signs and defray replacement costs.

Indian Rocks is considering planting native live oaks, palms and oleanders along Gulf Boulevard, a step in the right direction. There's also talk of creating an "attractive downtown" near the bridge. That space could become a gathering spot for residents and tourists. We can hope the city will keep it green and natural, making it a model for others.

As Frank Lloyd Wright said in 1955 when he visited Miami: "You come downtown and what's happening?Hotels or office buildings (like) something in a cemetery.But you (in Florida) where you have all these exquisite, lovely, beautiful things with such charm, why don't you learn from them? Why don't you do something down here that belongs?Why can't Miami be Miami?"

I echo that: Why can't Florida be Florida?

+ Dianne D. Price is a retired social worker and freelance writer who lives in Indian Rocks Beach. +