Miami commissioners agree to delay move on murals law
By Risa Polansky
Giant advertising murals in Miami's downtown core will continue to hang in the balance after Miami commissioners last week voted to defer a vote on regulatory legislation.
Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district is home to the bulk of the signs, proposed an ordinance slashing the number of murals allowed by Miami-Dade County from 45 to 15 and banning those buildings currently sporting illegal murals from receiving permits to do so legally.
But City Manager Pete Hernandez insisted the ordinance needs further review by city staff, the rest of the commission and representatives of the mural advertising industry.
"This is quite significant and requires additional study and additional vetting of concerns," he said.
Commissioners agreed despite a slideshow presentation by Mr. Sarnoff of 38 murals — which he now calls "outdoor advertisements" so as not to do "damage to the word mural" — hanging downtown.
"Why has this become such a big issue that we have to address it now?" Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones asked.
While Commissioner Tomás Regalado said he understands that "one thing is for sure: We need some kind of control," he said he was "not ready today to vote on this because I still have so many questions."
He suggested having all murals removed until the city sets its policy — but that is precisely the problem, Mr. Sarnoff insisted. "We're not in control. Code enforcement cannot, under the existing laws they have now, effectively police murals. Since the drafting of this ordinance, three illegal murals have gone up."
The county's recently enacted ordinance sets boundaries for murals in the city and limits their number among other stipulations but does not spell out a permitting system — that's up to the city.
Both Mr. Sarnoff's ordinance and a draft by city staffers call for lotteries to assign permits, but until legislation passes, a lottery is held and permits are doled out, all murals hanging now are illegal, according to code-enforcement director Mariano Loret de Mola.
Mr. de Mola "has been pursuing all the illegal murals," Mr. Sarnoff said. "When he arrives, they ordinarily bring them down. When he leaves, they go right back up."
The city's code does not include the word "murals," Mr. de Mola said. For now, he and his staff cite the signs under laws prohibiting banners and certain types of outdoor advertising.
There is no problem collecting fines on the signage — the city has more than $1 million in hand from the past year along with liens on property that bring the total close to $2 million, he said — but the issue lies in keeping the signs down.
Deferring the passage of legislation lets it continue, Mr. Sarnoff said, later calling the deferral "your typical mural-industry shenanigans."
In the meantime, the county, which can take action independent of its municipalities, has been citing violators, said Grisel Rodriguez, assistant director of operations for Team Metro, a code-compliance arm, last month.
Fines would be capped at $31,000, Ms. Rodriguez said, before the county called in lawyers to sue for the removal of a sign.
City staffers, working on an ordinance more stringent than the county's but less so than Mr. Sarnoff's, have "been talking to the industry, and we've met two to three times," said Orlando Toledo, senior director of building, planning and zoning. "Ideally, the idea is to go back to the drawing table and then come back" to commissioners.
Discussing the ordinance with industry representatives does not necessarily mean the city will "follow what they want and do it to their benefit," Mr. Hernandez said. "It has got to be an ordinance that first of all protects the city, but we should also be listening to the industry."
Regulations are to be expected, said Jason Jones, project manager at Giant Imaging, which produces the larger-than-life ads, but shouldn't be as strict as Mr. Sarnoff proposes.
The Sarnoff ordinance would cap the number of murals at 15, limit their size and require a $1 million bond or letter of credit from permit holders among other regulations.
"It's very sad that it has to come to this," Mr. Jones said. "It's going to kill the industry, limiting these wallscapes — it's what we do."
The $250-a-day fines collected by Miami-Dade County on murals until an ordinance passed this month upping them to $1,000 a day were "minimal," Mr. Jones said.
Should Mr. Sarnoff's ordinance pass, imposing permitting fees of $130,000 a year for murals, the advertising would become cost-prohibitive, Mr. Jones said.
The ordinance precludes buildings and mural companies found to be in violation of the code from entering the lottery.
Mr. Hernandez has "concern with that," he said. "You may be, in essence, preventing the use of prime locations that may support higher permit fees to the city."
Both ordinances proposed by the commissioner and city staff mandate that permit funds and money collected in fees be allocated toward the arts and acquiring park space.
Commissioners will not see another mural ordinance until at least September, when meetings resume after an August recess.