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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Trees and the public lose, signs and big business win

From the Florida Times Union

By Matt Dixon

With the blessing of a current state senator, and the help of a former state transportation secretary who is now the Clay County manager, a billboard company cut down more than 2,000 state-owned trees without paying the state a dime, according to emails and state records reviewed by the Times-Union.

Over a roughly five-month span in 2009, Milton-based Bill Salter Advertising received 105 permits to cut down trees impeding the view of its billboards across the Panhandle. Emails show that Salter sought help from then-Rep. Greg Evers, R-Milton, and then-Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos, who was hired in March by Clay County.

Related: Jacksonville council OK's 8-second sign changes over objections of neighborhood groups

Companies typically pay the state depending on the number and type of trees removed.

"We had some inconsistencies in our system," said John Garner, director of the Florida Department of Transportation's Office of Right Of Way. "I would have expected to see some mitigation money on those."

The Salter case caused the department to undertake a round of training, Garner said, to ensure that trees would no longer be removed without appropriate payments being made.

State law allows the department to decide if a company must submit a plan showing how it will replace trees removed from a site and pay a fee to help cover any remaining costs associated with removal, both of which should have been done in Salter's case, Garner said.

No estimate on how much the axed state assets were worth was ever compiled. Although not the average, one sign company paid the state $30,000 for a Central Florida billboard clearing to advertise a topless bar.

It is the responsibility of the permit holder - in this case Salter - to get rid of the trees, in essence handing over state property to a private company.

"On 1-8-09, I spoke with State Representative Mr. Greg Evers and Secretary of Transportation Ms. Stephanie Kopelousos about this and they agreed and we were granted these permits," wrote Dave McCurdy, Salter's general manager, in a May 2009 email to a state contractor.

He did not return calls to his cell phone and emails seeking comment.

His company got 105 permits in 2009, and one total in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010, records show. FDOT did not know why there were so many in one year.

Kopelousos was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 to head the transportation department. She says she does not remember meeting with McCurdy or what her exact role was in approving the permits.

Evers, now a state senator, said he was helping a constituent.

"I always try to help my constituents get a response from government if it is being non-responsive to their needs," said Evers, who answered all questions through an email sent by a spokeswoman.

He has filed legislation changing billboard permit requirements. Under the bill, FDOT would no longer decide if a company has to submit management plans or pay mitigation fees; rather that would be voluntary.

The number of permits granted over the five months in 2009 concerned department officials, emails show.

"When he says he's gotten over 100, I assume that means over the years, right?" wrote Lynn Holschuh, the FDOT's former outdoor and advertising and logo administrator in a May email to Faye McBroom, who oversaw permitting.

Holschuh, who is no longer with the FDOT, worked in the central office and was not directly involved in approvals. She has a hunch why the 105 permits were approved.

"With the whole outdoor advertising business, politics is involved," she said during a Monday interview.

It's a contention Kopelousos disagrees with because federal regulations are also in play.

The failure to collect money isn't the lone oddity related to Salter's permits.

Each of the 105 Salter permits were for billboards in the western portion of the Panhandle. That area includes two FDOT operations centers in Milton and Ponce de Leon , which process the permits.

Roughly 60 of Salter's permits were for areas covered by Ponce de Leon but were processed in Milton, where Evers lives and Salter is located. Officials in Ponce de Leon, who were apparently kept in the dark, had several questions when made aware.

"Were they supposed to remove stumps? What about long-term maintenance of these areas? Is it to be mowed? Let it grow back? From what I have seen the permit does not speak to any of this," wrote Stan Swiatek, head of the Ponce de Leon operations center in a May 2009 email to McBroom.

Swiatek is no longer with the department and declined to comment.

Evers' pending legislation (SB 1570) would make paying fees or plans voluntary.

The bill "requires them to pay nothing for the destruction of state trees," said Rip Caleen, a board member with Citizens for a Scenic Florida during Senate testimony on the bill.

Evers said the bill alleviates red tape.

"The entire billboard industry brought this language to me," he wrote. "We are regulating people in Florida out of business."

He said Salter was "uninvolved in, and even unaware of, the language.", (904) 359-4174


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