In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Billboards trump trees when you have powerful pals

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

Flout the law, you pay the price. Unless the transgressor happens to be a politically connected outdoor-advertising enterprise, happy to splash the mug of an influential state legislator across 32 billboards in his district. Then the price for ignoring state law comes with a very big discount.

In 2009, Bill Salter Advertising ignored legal caveats and chopped down 2,132 trees along the public right-of-way in six northwest Florida counties. Salter complained that these nuisance trees — laurel oaks, red maples, loblolly pine, water oak, sweet gum and slash pine — were obstructing the “view areas” of 61 company billboards along Interstate 10.

The Florida Department of Transportation paid a Tallahassee consultant $17,644 to calculate the losses. Stumps were measured. Market values were calculated. “Upon completion of the data collection, assessment, and calculations, mitigation value for all trees cut, was determined to be $1,915,259.05,” the consultant’s report said.

Salter got the final bill from FDOT this week. That $1.9 million rip-off will cost the Milton company just $100,000, to be paid off over the next five years, interest free.

Of course, Salter had obtained permits from FDOT before hacking away at the state’s trees. Except neither the company nor FDOT bothered with required mitigation plans, which could have cost Salter as much as $4 million.

Nor did FDOT enforce a state statute that would have required Salter to dismantle 56 older “non conforming” signs. Last February, a Leon County grand jury investigated and found FDOT had been “in flagrant violation of the law” when it issued the permits to Salter. The grand jury found that the company “knew the law but chose not to comply.”

But Salter Advertising was only doing what politically connected outfits do in our Florida plutocracy. The grand jury said Salter, “rather than submitting applications which complied with the requirements,” instead asked then-State Rep. Greg Evers of Crestview to “help with the permitting process.”

Evers, who happened to be on the House Transportation Committee, made calls and sent emails. The grand jury said Evers “was actively advocating on behalf of Salter Advertising regarding these permits.” And all those costly mitigation requirements mysteriously disappeared.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but in July 2009, the NRA leased 32 Salter billboards for a wildly discounted $18,000. The Jacksonville Times-Union reported that the NRA had paid $124,800 less than market price for the ads, which featured none other than a gun-wielding Greg Evers himself, decked out in camouflage, and the declaration, “I am the NRA.” Evers, by the way, was running for the state Senate seat he now occupies.

It was working out splendidly for everyone, until newspaper reporters and activists from Citizens for a Scenic Florida started raising hell. Bill Brinton, attorney for Scenic Florida, said Wednesday, “Full mitigation for the destruction of the public’s trees at the sites identified by FDOT should have been required.” But he said FDOT stonewalled Scenic Florida for months, trying to keep the details of the Salter permit process secret.

Finally, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the grand jury investigated. The grand jury demanded that the state recover the $1 million to $4 million in lost mitigation fees and that Salter be required to give up those 56 old billboards

Instead, FDOT has let Salter off with a hundred-grand assessment. And the loss of just 35 older billboards over the next six years.

Somehow, Brinton said by e-mail, “the enforcement effort went off the rails big time.” FDOT, the very department that the grand jury accused of “flagrant violation of the law” in its dealings with Salter, in a “collusion among public employees and a private party,” was allowed to decide the outcome.

“FDOT should have engaged outside counsel (certainly counsel from outside the FDOT) to pursue what would be a public interest lawsuit and anyone tied to the original debacle or to any cover-up should never have been placed in any position to influence the enforcement action,” Brinton wrote.

Bill Jonson, president of Scenic Florida, said Wednesday he was “shocked” by the settlement. “It makes me wonder if folks like myself weren’t here, what they’d be doing.”

It’s not as if FDOT was reacting to some great public clamor for more billboards, or demands to get rid of those damn trees along the interstate. Nothing about the original permits or the piddling settlement has a thing to with the public good. This was just about money and influence and the smelly grease that lubricates state government.

A year ago, the grand jury had suggested, rather plaintively in retrospect: “As the law and the FDOT rules have a valid purpose for public good, your grand jury recommends and expects all of us, including elected and appointed government officials, to follow the laws and rules whether we agree with them or not.”

In Florida, that seems too much to ask.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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