Billboard battles over, waiting for ink to dry on settlements

Billboard battles over, waiting for ink to dry on settlements
William Brinton stands before a CBS Outdoor billboard (City Sign No. 1618) at 2400 Gerard Avenue. Visible from I-95, the sign stands on property right next to a City-owned community park and is the backyard view of half a dozen homeowners on that road.

Four years and millions of dollars later, lawsuits may soon be settled and the Battle of the Billboards may come to closure. If City Council passes two bills and two others are withdrawn, the advocates for a billboard-free Jacksonville will be satisfied, if not totally happy.

“It’s a compromise,” said Alicia Grant, Scenic Jacksonville board member. Grant, along with William Brinton, Tracey Arpen, Susan Caven, president of Scenic Jacksonville’s board, and others have been united their efforts to reduce the number of billboards proliferating across Jacksonville despite City Charter Article 23 that was designed in 1987 to ban new off-site billboards. “We are happy because it protects the Charter.”

Brinton, a shareholder with Rogers Towers and a Florida Super Lawyer in environmental litigation, explained that settlement agreements were negotiated separately between Scenic Jacksonville, the City of Jacksonville, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor, now known as OutFront Media. There are slight variations in the two agreements, but each billboard defendant was given an opportunity to review and then opt in to the variations of the other.

“Although there is some tweaking going on, the agreements are all but signed,” said Grant. “Because they were negotiated in confidence, neither company knew what the other was asking for or getting.”

Ordinances 2014-716 (Clear Channel Outdoor) and 2014-717 (CBS Outdoor) will move those individual settlement agreements through City Council. Bills 2013-493 and 2014-562 will be withdrawn since the settlements will trump the issues in these older bills. City Council was expected to vote on the bills on Nov. 25.

“Clear Channel Outdoor is pleased that the agreement establishes consistent regulations for the sign industry and properly allows billboards in high traffic, non-residential areas,” said Brent Bolick, Division President, Clear Channel Outdoor. “It also recognizes that billboards play a vital role promoting local businesses, assisting non-profits and partnering with law enforcement, and the agreement ensures the outdoor advertising industry will continue to benefit the Jacksonville community.”

Back story on billboard bills
Sponsored by District 3 Councilman Richard Clark on behalf of Clear Channel, Ordinance 2014-493 was proposed in an attempt to remove the ban on the installation of new billboards. Under its negotiated settlement, the company will remove 170 billboards and posters at more than 85 locations throughout Duval County. According to an Aug. 7, 2014 Planning Commission Staff Report, there are 476 billboards in the Building Inspection Division database.

Brinton shared that 1200 to 1400 billboards have been removed in the past two decades, but not without several legal battles. There were four lawsuits in the 1990s that resulted in 12 settlements, yet some of those agreements were breached.

A controversial proposal from FDG duPont, a Coral Gables-based company, to replace and relocate within the Downtown Overlay Zone a CBS Outdoor sign (commonly known as the Ida Boyd Billboard) was first rejected by the Downtown Development Review Board (DDRB) in 2013. An appeal of that decision was rejected by the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) in 2014. A resolution (2014-562) currently rests with the Land Use and Zoning Committee (LUZ) upholding the denials by DDRB and DIA. That resolution will also be withdrawn and CBS Outdoor will not pursue putting up the billboard.

A digital billboard that was placed – against regulations – by CBS Outdoor at 2700 Atlantic Blvd. in February 2012 will “go dark,” according to Grant, within six months of the approval of 2014-717. The billboard will revert back to a static billboard and perhaps, eventually, be relocated away from that site in St. Nicholas.

Ironically, Citizens for a Scenic Florida owns property upon which three billboards rest. That property, next to City-owned Palmetto Leaves Regional Park, originally belonged to the Trust for Public Land, which tried to give it to the City about 10 years ago. The City would not accept the property because it had billboards on it. The property was transferred to Citizens for a Scenic Florida with the understanding that they would have the CBS Outdoor billboards removed.

Grant, who is treasurer for Citizens for a Scenic Florida, said the billboards are there illegally and there is no lease. “With everything else going on, we have not fought it, but we are now negotiating to get those taken down,” said Grant. “The hope is once we get those billboards removed we can transfer that property to the City.”

Brinton’s wish is to use that narrow strip of land next to the City ballpark to erect a landscape memorial to an attorney he knew who was on United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, PA on Sept. 11, 2001.

Watch doggers
What’s next for billboard opponents now that four years of legal battles and more than 10,000 hours of Brinton’s life – plus many more from Grant and the other advocates – are nearly over?

Scenic Jacksonville will continue to serve as unofficial watchdog to protect the beauty of the City of Jacksonville, for one.

“The settlement agreements will lead to more than 25 roadways becoming billboard-free over the next 15 years,” said Brinton. “Most of us know that beauty is good for business, and that our City will benefit from collective efforts to enhance our neighborhoods. We should redouble our efforts to protect our City from visual pollution, water pollution, air pollution, noise pollution, or any other degradation of our natural or built environment.”

Grant noted that the City would not agree to create any kind of mechanism, online or otherwise, so that the group could monitor the progress. “We will create our own database; we’ll just do a schedule and make sure these things happen when they are supposed to happen,” she concluded.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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