County to regulate, limit huge mural advertisements
By Ted Carter
Businesses that want to promote products and services on massive murals on the sides of downtown Miami buildings will have to vie for 30 commercial spots allowed by Miami-Dade County.
The spots would become more precious if county code officials follow through on a pledge to crack down on illegal commercial signage downtown. Under an ordinance approved Thursday after the necessary two meetings of consideration, the downtown core is set to be the only area the giant illuminated signs will be legal.
County officials plan vigorous enforcement, said Assistant County Manager Roger Carlton. "We'll do in the city what we did in the unincorporated areas," he said. "Without this ordinance, the county is tied from doing anything. We have the will to do the work that is necessary."
Owners of illegal signs will be required to remove them at least 30 days before the City of Miami begins issuing the permits, according to Bruno Barreiro, county commission chairman and sponsor of the measure. Signs for which the city has made special agreements with the owners of the signs must also come down, county officials say.
Some county commissioners say the $500 fine specified in the new ordinance won't dissuade violators.
Even with fines of $1,000 a day — a sum state law deems too much — the law is unlikely to be a threat to scofflaws, Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said. "We'll have 30 legal and 70 illegal if we don't pump up the fines," he said at last week's commission meeting.
The fine as proposed, Commissioner Katy Sorenson said, is not "even the cost of doing business. They should have to pay for the lawlessness that has been encouraged by our government."
Mr. Gimenez wanted a $5,000-a-day penalty, a level that Assistant County Attorney Joni Coffey said is far above state limits.
She said the county could add some deterrence by seeking civil sanctions, including seizure of the sign-lease proceeds through disgorgement of rent penalties. Court costs would also be sought, Ms. Coffey said. "We understand there is a need to create an economic disadvantage for breaking the law."
However, enforcement can't include removal of the signs and billing the building owner that sold the space, she said. "We can't remove the sign if it's on private property. We'd need to seek authorization from the court."
A restraining order is an alternative, especially if the owner of the host building is a repeat violator, she said. The county "can get the sign taken down immediately and seek damages."
But increasing a violation fine to $1,000 a day may have to await the outcome of litigation with the state over limits on code penalties, Ms. Coffey said. She said the county has several code-violation categories for which it levies fines of $1,000. "I'm confident we can sustain it."
Mr. Barreiro said he is willing to consider increasing the daily fine from $500 to the maximum amount county legal staff advises can be sustained. The amount of the fine "is a work in progress," he said.
Mr. Barreiro said the commission can consider an increased fine for the murals at a May 8 meeting at which commissioners are to consider expanding the boundaries of the district in which the signs can be placed.
The current City of Miami maximum fine is $250 a day.
Meanwhile, Team Metro is prepared to expand sign enforcement into downtown, according to Sam Walthour, Team Metro director. Team Metro has 20 mural enforcement actions under way in unincorporated Miami-Dade, he said.
"As we find murals that go up, we issue formal violation notices" that essentially are warnings before fines. "We follow this by issuing a citation instead of a fine," Mr. Walthour said.
Code officers can cite the owner of the host building and the business leasing the space. But the building owner must pay if the advertising company refuses to, Mr. Walthour said.
He said code officers are frustrated that they often get signs removed only to see new ones appear in their place. A building owner in unincorporated Miami-Dade has done that eight times, he said.
Under the ordinance, sign companies or building owners cited for violations in unincorporated areas of the county will be ineligible for sign permits in the downtown area designated for the murals. Those cited in unincorporated areas after receiving a permit for downtown will be subject to losing the permit, county officials say.
Who gets the permits will be up to the city's zoning department. Department officials have not said how they intend to select permit holders.
City of Miami administration is waiting for commissioners to adopt the enabling legislation that would instruct zoning officials on the permit process and how to regulate the murals.
The city may distribute the 30 permits based on a lottery, said Commissioner Joe Sanchez. County commission Chairman Barreiro said he thinks a lottery would work.
The ordinance specifies that if someone applies to the city for a permit and does not receive a decision within 30 days, the applicant should consider the request denied.
Speaking as the chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, Mr. Sanchez said the county ordinance "means we have come to an agreement where we're going to have restrictions — we're not going to have a cluster of illegal murals. It's been profitable for them to be illegal, but not anymore."
He calls the city's reputation for letting illegal murals slide under code enforcement radar "sins of the past" that officials are "trying to overcome.
"There's a new sheriff in town," he said.
Ms. Coffey said Miami was designated for the mural-control ordinance ahead of other Miami-Dade municipalities because "we have identified the city of Miami as having a unique aesthetic."