Should Trees Come Down for Billboards?
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
October 7, 2006 Saturday
SHOULD THESE TREES COME DOWN . . . SO MOTORISTS CAN SEE BILLBOARDS?
Daphne Sashin, Sentinel Staff Writer
SECTION: A SECTION; FINAL; Pg. A1
KISSIMMEE — Five years ago, Osceola County planted stately palms and lush crape myrtles to spruce up a stretch of West U.S. Highway 192 cluttered with tacky T-shirt shops, time-share kiosks and bargain hotels.
As part of a $29 million beautification project covering 13 miles of road, workers also planted brightly blooming oleander, viburnum, oaks and loquats.
But now, about three dozen trees must be cut down — because a billboard company says they block the view of signs advertising the Old Town amusement park, a Ponderosa Steakhouse and other businesses.
“We have no choice in the matter. They’ve got to come out,” said Steve Homan, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation’s Central Florida district.
Clear Channel Outdoor, which owns the billboards, says the trees never should have been planted. Since 1996, DOT has had a rule requiring a 500-foot viewing zone in front of billboards.
“It’s absolutely unfortunate, because we surely are very supportive of beautification efforts,” said Craig Swygert, general manager of Clear Channel Outdoor’s Orlando division. “But the fact is that trees were planted illegally.”
It’s unclear why DOT didn’t enforce the rule for landscaping on its own right of way. The road agency assumed the county’s landscape architect knew the rules, Homan said.
“It would have been better if we had known,” Homan said. “But it would be far better if someone had designed it in accordance with the restrictions that they should have been familiar with.”
The county assumed DOT was reviewing the plans for compliance.
“DOT was right with us with the designs,” said Sherry Hopkins, an assistant county attorney. “I don’t know where the gap happened. I don’t know why this fell through the cracks.”
Law guarantees visibility
A bill signed into law in June sharpened the rule and gave it teeth. The law said anyone who blocked a billboard as part of a beautification effort on a public road had 90 days to remove the trees or pay the value of the sign — or risk a lawsuit and fines. Billboard owners were entitled to a 500-foot viewing area on roads where the speed limit was more than 35 mph.
The Florida Outdoor Advertising Association, primarily funded by Clear Channel and two other billboard companies, lobbied for the bill.
Osceola officials expressed concern to their own lobbyists but were unable to sway lawmakers.
“I’ve got 2,200 property owners that I answer to, and they paid for this,” said Hector Lizasuain, the 192 project coordinator.
“It’s horrible . . . how a private company can have so much power over public right of way. That’s what kills me.”
Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, whose district includes the 192 corridor, supported the bill publicly. He said the intent was not to destroy trees.
“The purpose of it was blocking people from planting trees in front of someone’s business,” Johnson said.
“Nobody likes billboards everywhere. But where they are legally permitted, this is someone’s business. . . . If their view is blocked, then that takes their value away.”
The West 192 property owners agreed to tax themselves for 30 years to make the corridor more visually appealing with sidewalks, purple light poles, mile markers and hundreds of trees.
Years before the law was passed, Clear Channel had gone back and forth with Osceola officials about trees in the beautification area, and succeeded in getting some moved.
Decision: Trees must go
In July, a Clear Channel official wrote to DOT demanding removal of 53 crape myrtles, Washingtonian palms, loquats, oaks, viburnums and oleander hedges in the tourist corridor.
The road agency ruled in September that 38 trees were planted improperly, though it still had to verify that number.
This week, maintenance crews tied pink ribbons around the offending trees, which are valued at about $1,000 apiece. The county has until Oct. 17 to move them, or the state will cut them down, Homan said.
The county will comply with DOT’s orders, Hopkins said. Meantime, it is trying to figure out which trees can be moved and what new vegetation to plant.
Others said Clear Channel is being unreasonable.
“The other billboard companies seem to be able to work around it. But Clear Channel just has this, oh, it’s like a jihad against these trees,” said Bill Jonson, a Clearwater councilman and the president of Citizens for a Scenic Florida.
One business owner said he doesn’t see why the billboard company can’t compromise.
“The trees are there for a beautification project. Why should they be removed?” said Chuck Young, owner of Travelodge Suites East Gate Orange. “If they block the view, maybe not remove it — maybe clear it a little bit.”
Clear Channel officials say they’re simply asserting their rights.
“We’re always viewed as the bad guys,” Swygert said.
“We have the legal right to be there.”
Trees in the way of billboards on West U.S. Highway 192 must be cut down, the state says. A rule requires 500 feet of visibility in front of the signs.