FDOT responds to Grand Jury report: "In Re: Salter Advertising Right-Of-Way Tree Removal", requiring the company to submit a vegatation management plan, surrender 54 non-conforming billboards, and pay an administrative penalty for their failure to comply with Florida laws concerning tree cutting.
In 2009 Citizens for a Scenic Florida, Inc., a non-partisan scenic conservation organization, received information from an anonymous source indicating an extraordinary failure by the Florida Department of Transportation to enforce Florida laws, now described as a “debacle” in the grand jury’s findings that were unsealed on January 24. Despite FDOT’s failure to timely provide key documents in response to public records requests, a grand jury report confirms the issuance of more than 100 illegal permits to a Panhandle billboard company, Salter Advertising, and the destruction of public trees worth up to $4 million.
The state Department of Transportation was “in flagrant violation of the law” when it helped a Panhandle billboard company bilk the state out an estimated $4 million, a scathing grand jury report concludes.
A grand jury is investigating a Florida state senator for his role in helping a Panhandle billboard company cut down state-owned trees without paying costly fees.
In January 2009, the Florida Department of Transportation began handing 2,094 state-owned trees over to a politically connected billboard company. It's spent a lot of time since making sure no one knows it happened.
Over five months and with the help of former transportation secretary Stephanie Kopelousos, now Clay County's manager, and former Rep. Greg Evers, who at the time was chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Panhandle-based Bill Salter Advertising was given approval to ax the trees to make room for billboards without paying costly mitigation fees, or up to $2 million in fines that should have later been levied.
There was a quiet effort made this year by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Milton, to loosen requirements billboard companies must meet to cut down state-owned trees to make their signs more visible.
The push came two years after he helped a Panhandle billboard company acquire permits to cut down more than 2,000 state-owned trees without paying the state a dime, as required by Florida law. The department later did not turn over a handful of emails related to the issue that were sought as part of a public records request.
President's Message: Attack on Public Trees Fails
Message from William C. Jonson, President, Scenic Florida
May 18, 2011
Three bills (SB 1570, SB 1180, and HB 1363) that would have relaxed tree protection provisions failed to pass this legislative session.
We can breathe again.
I believe that the press reports, the letters and all of your emails had some impact on the outcome.
Clearly this issue will be back, but we have some time to educate the press and inform our elected representatives before it starts again next year.
Please let your elected representatives know that you appreciate their support of Florida's scenic beauty by clicking here.
Evers bill Clears The Way For Billboards
Craig Pittman, The Saint Petersburg Times
April 27, 2011
Comprehensive coverage of this entire issue is in a St. Petersburg Times article titled "Evers bill clears the way for billboards - Firms could ax trees freely in right of way", which provides some insight into the process and the role of Evers in this attempt to relax our state's tree protection laws.
In addtion to the current situation they cover the infamous Salter 2009 tree cutting:
"... according to DOT records, Evers helped Salter Advertising get its permits to cut the trees blocking the view of about 100 of its signs along the interstate.
Some of the trees were classified as 'heritage oaks,' said Bill Brinton of of the anti-billboard group Scenic America, who later filed a complaint with the DOT.
Salter did not want to pay any money to the state for chopping down those trees, according to internal DOT emails. Company executives also made it clear they did not want to give up any signs that didn't fit existing state regulations — especially not two signs for every one where they cut down a tree, as the law requires.
DOT records show they sought help from Evers. As Salter executive David McCurdy explained in a May 21, 2009, email to a DOT consultant who questioned the deal, Evers helped set up a meeting with Crist administration DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos to argue in favor of special treatment for Salter.
At that meeting, 'They agreed, and we were granted these permits,' McCurdy wrote.
In a July 14, 2009, email, a DOT official in Milton wrote: 'Reps from Salter Adv. went to Tall. and met with Sec. of Trans' and she gave them the go ahead for cutting these sites."
Kopelousos, now the county manager of Clay County, did not return a call seeking a comment...."
Florida’s Scenic Beauty is Threatened by Pending Legislation
Legislation to allow more Roadside Trees to be cut for Billboard View zones continues to advance in the Florida House (HB 1363). Your action needed to stop these bills. Click Here.
The companion bill - Senate Bill 1180 - was passed by Senate Budget Committee, 19-0 on April 15th. The final bill included the tree-cutting provision. House Bill 1363 is scheduled to go to the House Economic Affairs Committee, but as of this posting has no current schedule.
An audio recording of Sen. Latvala explaining the amendments to SB 1180 is here. The recording includes the Senator describing the amendment adding the tree destruction language (starts at 3:10).
You can send a quick message to all affected elected officials by clicking here.
Please do this today.
The Senate Community Affairs Committee passed Senate Bill 1570 on Billboards on Monday (4/4/2011). The bill ends a 15 year old requirement that requires mitigation for state owned trees destroyed by Billboard Companies on state owned property along our roads. The language of the bill deletes the “shall” requirement for mitigation to a “may” requirement for mitigation at the “at the election of the applicant”.
An audio transcript of the meeting is here. You can hear Senator Storms questioning Senator Evers about the tree cutting language (starts at 1.:04).
These trees belong to the citizens of Florida. There is no reason to give away our scenic resource for private gain, especially considering the dire straits of our state's budget.
Look at this tree (on the left) that was cut for billboard visibility and this "view zone" - is this the future of our public roadsides? Look at the barren area (on the right) with the "We Bare ..." billboard - The bill will allow a billboard company to come onto state property and cut down public trees in a view zone like this one so that their advertising message will be more visible, without paying the state mitigation fee for the loss of our trees.
The bill also reduces a requirement that new billboard view zones require the surrender of TWO nonconforming billboard permits for each new billboard. The bill reduces this number to ONE permit surrender, another giveaway for the billboard industry.
The Florida Constitution states: “It shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty.” The bill turns over natural resources to private businesses for personal gain. In Georgia, the destruction of public trees without mitigation is considered an illegal and unconstitutional gratuity.
Welcome to Florida, the state of destruction.