The most outrageous thing about the Maitland City Council's attempt to ditch its 75-year ban on billboards is not that one of the 70-foot monstrosities could soon loom over a quiet neighborhood.
And it's not that the City Council voted 3-2 in favor of allowing a digital billboard after not one but two advisory boards voted unanimously against it.
The most offensive thing isn't even that the council's original deal with the billboard company attempted to arrange a sketchy quid pro quo. (Council members said they would change the ordinance if the company gave the city free advertising on the sign. That bit ultimately wasn't included in the proposed ordinance after the city attorney informed the council that city ordinances can't be put up for sale, at least not legally.)
No, the most outrageous aspect of this whole ordeal is that some members of the City Council don't have a clue about what a big deal this is.
Maitland was turning away billboards before Franklin Roosevelt was president — a rarity in Florida, where billboards outnumber palm trees in most cities.
And what a difference a billboard ban makes.
Drive down U.S. Highway 17-92 or Horatio Avenue, even the stretch near Wymore Road and Interstate 4 where the proposed billboard would go.
Maitland is a haven from the obnoxious signs that blight roadways in neighboring Winter Park and Altamonte Springs.
That's by design. Maitland is the kind of 'burb that prizes its upscale, small-town vibe. And it has put a lot of effort into creating a matching aesthetic.
The city so detests billboards that it has paid property owners to take down signs when their land was annexed into the city.
In 2005 Maitland paid the owner of an auto repair shop $325,000 to remove a billboard on his land.
The proposed change to the sign ban, which is scheduled to be voted on for a second and final time on Monday, has the potential to open the floodgates.
"It's kind of a slippery slope," said City Council member John Lowndes, who along with Joy Goff-Marcil voted against the billboard last month. "If it's a good idea in one place, why stop there?"
Jennifer McRae has a personal stake in the fight. Homeowners in her Maitland Club neighborhood will be able to see the proposed sign from their yards.
The ordinance would allow a 70-foot digital billboard aimed at I-4 on land owned by St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church on Wymore Road. The church has a leasing deal with a billboard company that has been pushing for the change.
One reason Maitland council members may be falling in love with billboards is because backers of the idea include well-connected businessmen Jere Pile and Philip Cowherd.
People like McRae are worried — with good reason — that once one billboard is allowed, it will be hard to say no to others.
"Everybody else out there will say, 'Where's mine?'" she said. "If three [council members] can decide that my neighborhood doesn't matter, who's to say that next week they don't decide that Dommerich doesn't matter or another neighborhood doesn't matter?"
City staff warned the council that changing the ordinance has a "high" potential to set a precedent, a bad one.
Mayor Howard Schieferdecker and council members Linda Frosch and Ivan Valdes know that. And they voted for it anyway.
On Monday they ought to reconsider that decision, or be prepared to face the torches and pitchforks of a justifiably outraged community.
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