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Concerns raised in billboard removal

Officials from both the city and county are worried the state's program violates federal law.

By Christopher Curry
Staff writer

Skeptical Alachua County and Gainesville officials have both sent letters to the Florida Department of Transportation questioning if the state's proposed billboard removal program to beautify the Interstate 75 corridor violates federal law.

Specifically, the county and city argue that the state would violate the Federal Highway Beautification Act by allowing billboard companies to rebuild brand-new, modern billboards at the spot where old signs are taken down. That exchange is proposed as an incentive for companies to remove additional billboards at other locations along I-75.

"When FDOT decided to fund a program for billboard removal to address FHA (Federal Highway Administration) concerns, the program should have been structured solely to remove billboards and not allow enhancements to existing billboards," Gainesville officials stated in their letter.

Gainesville and Alachua County both prohibit the construction of new billboards and each government expressed a concern that the state program could pre-empt those local ordinances in spite of statements from DOT officials that it would not.

The state's program still needs federal approval, and John Garner, director of right-of-way for DOT, said local governments that ban new billboards could choose not to participate.

Garner said the DOT plan would not allow billboards at any new locations but companies could be allowed to rebuild "non-conforming" signs if they tear down non-conforming billboards at other locations.

"If they have a sign they want to enhance, in exchange for being allowed to rebuild it, we would say give up signs here, here and here," Garner said.

He said there are two categories on non-conforming signs - those erected in zoning districts where billboards are not allowed and those within 1,500 feet of one another.

The Alachua County Commission's letter requested the state base its program on one in place in South Carolina, where "tri-vision" billboards - mechanical signs that rotate advertisements - are banned and a 30-foot height limit is in place. The county also wants a sunset provision added, requiring that any new billboards put up under the exchange program come down in 40 years.

Connected to this DOT sign reduction project is a DOT plan to spend $15 million over five years buying up and taking down billboards along the I-75 corridor from the Georgia state line to the Florida Turnpike in the Sumter County city of Wildwood.

County Commission Chairman Mike Byerly said county officials are concerned the programs will not result in a significant reduction in the number of billboards along I-75, but will result instead in large payouts to billboard companies, who will then also be allowed to replace dilapidated signs they would otherwise not be able to rebuild with brand-new steel signs.

Because of those worries, the county has urged DOT to maximize the purchasing power of the $15 million by basing purchase prices on what billboard owners value signs at on tax returns, instead of any appraisal method that results in a higher value.

"How many (billboards) it buys depends on how much you pay for each one," County Attorney Dave Wagner said.

The county also wants the state to place a priority on buying up billboards in areas - like Alachua County and Gainesville - where the local governments have prohibited the construction of new billboards.

Garner said courts have ruled that the state is not allowed to base purchase prices on taxable value. Instead, the market value - or an estimate of what the owner could make selling a billboard - needs to be taken into account.

"The appraisal process on billboards is always controversial," Garner said. "There are those, such as Alachua County, who think signs should be valued as they are declared on their taxes. The courts say we must look at all values."

County and city officials also noted that there is a history of DOT running afoul of federal regulations when it comes to billboards.

The letter from Gainesville revisited the state's decision to allow billboard companies to rebuild nearly 200 of the non-conforming billboards that were destroyed by the hurricanes of 2004.

"In the 44 years since the HBA's (Highway Beautification Act) passage, those nonconforming signs were intended to be removed over time by natural attrition, which is what should have occurred in 2004," the city stated in its letter to DOT.