WILL HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY DEFEND ITS BILLBOARD BAN?-Andrew Stelzer

05/19/04

It’s been 19 years since Hillsborough county commissioners voted to ban roadside billboards, but there are still at least 65 of them in the county. Now another lawsuit has been filed against the county, this time by a Texas company which claims the ban violates their constitutional rights. RTM media, based in Austin, has filed suit in Hillsborough circuit court, along with an injunction to against the moratorium that has kept the company from putting billboards up.

Hillsborough County’s 1985 ban has faced legal challenges before, and because of large advertising companies legal threats, the ban has never been fully enforced. A Lawsuit filed by clearchannel in 2000 resulted in the Hillsborough county commission backing off its ban, and agreeing to let the two companies keep the 65 billboards they currently had; it also permitted them to take any billboard down and replace it with another one elsewhere. There are almost no notes of county officials’ conversations during this process, they claim this is most of the talks took place over the phone. At least one commissioner, Jim Norman, has received donations from Billboard companies.

Bill Brinton is an attorney who represented Clearwater, St Pete Beach and Maryesther, a town in the Florida panhandle. All three towns had laws prohibiting billboards that were challenged by billboard companies. In all three cases, the town’s laws stood up in court. Brinton says the lack of backbone is why Hillsborough county has faced so many lawsuits.

ACT “Cities or counties are intimidated into giving billboards, then you become targeted…cities that stand their ground are more likely to prevail…�

Randal Morrison is a lawyer based in San Diego, he has defended cities billboard bans in several cases. Morrison says the case of Hillsborough county appears to be similar to many he’s seen

ACT “Sometimes cities will give in…�

The count has not yet commented on the lawsuit, in which RTM media claims their free speech rights are violated, and that the exception allowed for clearchannel and Viacom unfairly discriminates against them.

Although Brinton has not been involved in the Hillsborough county legal struggle, he says Hillsborough’s settlement is the worst he’s ever seen.

ACT “Those agreements appear to operate in perpetuity…�

Brinton praises Clearwater, where he says a commitment to making the city more beautiful has resulted in slow but steady progress towards improving the quality of life for its residents.

ACT There’s a great set of photos….not al local governments have been as successful as Clearwater..that because of turnover..�

Brinton says that besides just looking ugly, allowing billboards can end up taking away the publics rights to control public land.

ACT “The presence of a billboard…�

Morrison says that outdoor advertising companies spend millions of dollars every year to fight laws that have already been challenged and proved to be constitutional.

ACT “The battle is really about whether cities can ban billboards….�

And contributions to state representatives make it harder for local officials to defend their laws against lawsuits.

ACT “The billboard industry has millions to spend on lobbying…

There is currently a grassroots campaign to amend Florida’s constitution to make billboards illegal. Hawaii, Maine, Vermont and Alaska all have zero billboards in their entire state; in 1998, Alaska voters passed a constitutional amendment, which prevents billboards from ever being built. RTM media did not return WMNFs calls for comment.

For more information on the campaign for an amendment to ban billboards in Florida, go to www.scenicbeauty.org

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