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Eller Media sues Pinellas over billboard code

The outdoor advertiser alleges the ordinance is unconstitutional and says it should be reimbursed for signs it removes.

Eller Media, Pinellas County's largest outdoor advertiser, sued the county Friday in federal court, claiming a sign ordinance requiring the company to remove its billboards is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit is the latest move in the battle between the county and billboard companies over Pinellas' controversial 8-year-old sign code.

"I can't say that I'm surprised," Pinellas Commissioner Sallie Parks said. "They have been saying this was against their constitutional rights all along. I suppose they think court is the place to question that."

The 30-page suit alleges the ordinance violates the company's right to free speech, due process of law, equal protection under the law and right of contract and demands the county compensate the company for the signs if they are removed.

Eller and Sunus Corp., a Florida business that owns property that Eller leases, filed the suit. The companies also filed a companion lawsuit against the county in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Company officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Eller has 212 billboards in unincorporated Pinellas affected by the ordinance. According to the suit, the company asked the county for a variance for the billboards in February but was rejected. In March, the county issued a notice of violation to Eller.

The companies argue that the signs were legal before the 1992 sign code created stricter rules for signs and billboards.

"Eller's off-site and billboard signs are not nuisances under Florida law," the suit says.

The ordinance bans billboards in the unincorporated areas, except along U.S. 19, Interstate 275, Gandy and Roosevelt boulevards, and the eastern part of Tampa Road. In addition to billboards, it also set stricter height and size requirements for all kinds of signs.

While all signs approved since 1992 have had to meet the ordinance, businesses with signs up before the ordinance was adopted had seven years _ until March 1999 _ to comply with the new rules.

Twice last year, however, commissioners decided they weren't ready to start enforcing the rules and needed more time to study the effect of the ordinance. In November, commissioners decided it was time to enforce the regulation, after they got a ruling from the county attorney that the sign ordinance was legally defensible.

At the time, an Eller spokeswoman said the company was disappointed with the decision because it was hoping a compromise could have been worked out.

Pinellas cities that have adopted sign ordinances have avoided lawsuits by allowing Eller and its competitors to keep billboards that existed before their new rules were passed.

County officials, including County Attorney Susan Churuti and County Administrator Fred Marquis, could not be reached for comment.