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The billboard boosters

Two area lawmakers are pushing legislation that would tie the hands of local governments trying to place reasonable controls on billboards.

Though no one will ever see a billboard as lovely as a tree, Floridians may have more billboards and fewer trees in their future.

At the Capitol, influential legislators are hammering counties and cities to make a questionable deal with the billboard lobby. At the Department of Transportation, a new highway beautification policy guarantees longer "clear views," essentially, eight uninterrupted seconds at posted speeds, wherever a legal outdoor sign precedes tree-planting.

The DOT has a more plausible excuse than the legislators do: Its lawyers weren't confident of successfully defending the old guidelines, which specified shorter distances. The problem is a state law _ the Legislature's fault, again _ that says a beautification project may not "screen from view" any billboard that got there first. To the outdoor advertising industry, says Kenneth M. Towcimak, DOT's right of way director, "that means as far as the eye can see." He doesn't expect the billboard lobby to be satisfied with the department's concession.

Beautification advocates don't like it either, but they have a worse problem at the House and Senate transportation committees, chaired by Rep. David D. Russell Jr., R-Brooksville, and Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg. Both are proposing, as part of the massive annual transportation bill, to make local governments pay "just compensation" for any billboard they order taken down. At up to $400,000 per sign, that would put a prompt stop to the billboard removal programs of Pinellas County, Clearwater, Orlando, Jacksonville and many other Florida communities.

That's already the rule along federal-aid primary highways, thanks to the billboard lobby's excessive influence over Congress. The Russell-Sebesta legislation would extend this to all of Florida's "other" highways. It would erase a long line of court decisions upholding the powers of cities and counties to set deadlines, usually five to 10 years, for clearing old billboards from local roads.

"Amortization of nonconforming signs, if the period is reasonably long enough to allow the sign owner to recoup his investment, is a valid alternative to compensation," said one typical Florida appellate decision.

The present threat first bloomed in 1994 and again last year when it appeared as a "housekeeping" amendment in the last days of the session. Local outrage and Gov. Jeb Bush's disapproval stopped it then.

Russell and Sebesta have an interesting explanation for reviving it this year. They believe themselves to be doing the local governments a favor by putting it out early. Their purpose is to encourage a permanent compromise between the cities and the billboard cartel. Otherwise, they say, counties and cities will continue spending endlessly on legal fees because the billboard lobby isn't giving up.

"What we both want to do," says Sebesta, "is have a thorough hearing and get both sides to the table and get it resolved once and for all."

But if Sebesta and Russell fancy themselves as mediators, they're flouting the basic rule that an honest broker should be evenhanded. As drafted, the bill gives the cartel what it wants most and takes from the local governments what they need most. It forces them to negotiate at gunpoint.

The pressure is telling. Counsel for the cities and counties have been to a series of meetings where the billboard lobby has proposed a mediation process for exchanging billboards in less desirable locations for places where they would be worth more. Cities could unilaterally amortize billboards only in residential areas, where there aren't many to begin with. To call that a compromise beggars the word.

It may be hard for ordinary citizens to understand how some legislators can be so much against home rule over billboards and so much in favor of making local governments the masters of their own growth. Is it because politicians are so often billboard advertisers, or because the lobby is so generous? Since 1996, its trade group and the three companies that dominate the market have given nearly $250,000 in cash or services to various candidates and committees.

Whatever the reason, it's not good enough. The Legislature should get out of the way and let the cities and counties decide for themselves whether and when to compromise. They've been doing well enough on their own.

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