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Judge upholds ban on billboards

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The city won another round this week in its 17-year battle against billboards.

In a 58-page ruling issued Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. sided with the city against a Georgia company that wanted to strike down all Clearwater's sign regulations to pave the way for new billboards.

Granite State Outdoor Advertising Inc. filed federal lawsuits in Tampa against Clearwater, St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach contending that each city's sign rules place unconstitutional limits on free speech.

The company had hoped to force the three cities to allow 19 new billboards that would have been up to 85 feet tall with 672-square-foot sign faces.

In Clearwater, Granite State requested permission to put up eight billboards, about 65 feet high and possibly taller, on U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

On Thursday, city officials applauded the court victory and criticized Granite State for using "bully" tactics.

"It's almost like a shell game," Mayor Brian Aungst said. "It's really pretty sleazy."

Granite State lawyer E. Adam Webb of Atlanta said the company has been successful in other jurisdictions and will appeal the Clearwater ruling.

"I'm sure we'd be optimistic that this decision would be overturned," he said.

The complaints against St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach are still pending, but Clearwater City Attorney Pam Akin said Wednesday's decision likely will have a bearing on them.

"Granite State will have to decide what to do about those cases," she said. "All of our ordinances are very similar."

Although he denied Granite State's complaint, the judge found some problems with Clearwater's sign ordinance and struck a handful of provisions he found to be internally inconsistent or unconstitutional.

For instance, the court ruled that laws placing 60- and 90-day time limits on election signs are unconstitutional. The judge upheld the regulation requiring the signs to be removed within seven days of elections. The judge also found certain regulations give too much discretion to city officials in allowing temporary special event signs without a permit. Moody also ruled as inconsistent laws regulating window signs and "snipe" signs, which are small notices posted on poles, trees and stakes.

Akin characterized those provisions as minor and said the city has already begun work to fix the problems.

The judge ruled that part of the city's sign ordinance could effectively chill First Amendment rights but found that provision had not actually harmed Granite State.

"Rather than speculate on a hypothetical case involving an individual whose sign permit was arbitrarily and impermissibly denied, the court saves this question for another day, and for a plaintiff who has actually been injured by such a delay," Moody wrote.

Before filing its lawsuits, Granite State applied for billboard permits. Rather than appeal the denials, the company filed suit against Clearwater in August 2001.

Local businesses such as Lenny's, Dairy Kurl and Clearwater Mattress had agreed to let Granite State's billboards go up on small sections of their land, which business owners said they would lease for anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 yearly.

A ban on such signs in Clearwater has been in place since 1996, when a seven-year grace period for demolition expired.

Clearwater is fighting three other lawsuits to force out the last nine billboards on Gulf-to-Bay. The city has budgeted $120,000 and may spend more in ongoing legal battles with billboard companies.

Clearwater City Commissioner Bill Jonson, who is president of Citizens for a Scenic Florida, said Wednesday's ruling was a victory for local governments.

"The billboard industry does not respect local laws," he said. "They'll swing their political and legal muscle around for their personal gain; and it sounds like we had a judge who looked at the law and said, "No way.' "

Since 1997, when it was created, Granite State has secured 22 billboard permits in a half-dozen Georgia towns in partnership with another company, called SMD, according to Wayne Charles, president and co-owner of Granite State. He made the comments during deposition testimony for the Clearwater case.

Granite State itself has never used one of its permits to put up a billboard. Instead, the company and SMD sell their permits to large advertising companies such as Clear Channel Outdoor, formerly known as Eller Media.