Council OKs billboard settlements
November 6, 2009
The city has declared a truce in its lengthy battle with two billboard companies.
On Thursday, the city council approved settlements with CBS and Clear Channel Outdoors aimed at resolving more than a decade of litigation over the number of billboards the companies can put up throughout the city and where they can put them.
The agreements require the companies to take down billboards from so-called scenic areas. In exchange, they will be allowed to replace them with billboards in other areas as long as they adhere to proposed rule changes on height, brightness and placement.
The vote on both settlements was 5 to 2, with council members Linda Saul-Sena and Mary Mulhern voting against it, citing concerns about aesthetics and public safety.
Approval of the settlement marks the end of a long and contentious legal challenge.
In 1996, the city signed an agreement with CBS and Clear Channel that, among other provisions, required them to remove signs from scenic corridors in the city.
The companies argued that the agreement deprived them of the ability to relocate signs to other areas of the city. In 2004, they filed lawsuits challenging the restrictions.
Combined, CBS and Clear Channel have about 1,300 billboards in the city. Both companies said they have taken down dozens of billboards in the past decade.
After years of court hearings and closed-door negotiations with city officials, CBS and Clear Channel agreed to a proposed settlement last year. But neighborhood groups and environmentalists complained that the settlements would mean a proliferation of digital billboards, ruining the city's visual landscape and creating major public safety issues.
When the council rejected the settlement, Mayor Pam Iorio instructed her legal team to separate the digital billboard provision from the traditional billboards agreement.
To address the digital billboard issue, the Iorio administration has proposed amending the city's sign code to limit the number of digital displays to about 40 citywide, impose restrictions on their brightness and placement, and prohibit them in historic districts.
The settlements approved Thursday include a provision allowing the companies to opt out of them if the city doesn't pass an ordinance to allow electronic signs in four to six months. That could send the issue back to court.
Council members will hold a workshop Dec. 3 to discuss the proposed sign changes.
Wofford Johnson, president of Tampa Homeowners, An Association of Neighborhoods, which represents dozens of city homeowners associations, said despite the fact that his members don't want billboards in the city, they had no objections to the settlements.
"In a perfect world, we wouldn't have any billboards," Johnson said.
Todd Pressman, a lobbyist representing Clear Channel Outdoors, said the settlement would vastly improve Tampa's visual landscape by reducing the number of billboards.
He acknowledged that the settlement was not likely to please everyone.
"You could pave the streets in gold and there would still be complaints," he said.
The settlements now go to the Hillsborough County Circuit Court for final approval.
Both companies have agreed to pay the city $25,000 to cover its legal expenses.
In other action, the city council approved an ordinance extending laws prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation, sex, race and religion to include "gender identity or expression."