Sign pollution makes Miami look like ‘a third-world country’

It’s election season, which means a hardy species of weed is growing on front lawns, in vacant lots and along fences. Campaign signs are back, littering the landscape with political advertising.

To make matters even more unsightly, thousands of signs posted for the Aug. 28 primary haven’t been removed so dozens of losing candidates are still smiling at passers-by as new signs are put up prior to the Nov. 6 election.

Forgive voters confused by the clutter. Despite the presence of his navy blue signs, Bruno Barreiro is not running for U.S. Congress anymore because he was trounced by Maria Elvira Salazar in the Republican race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen —although he did finish ahead of Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, who made headlines for a supposed encounter with extraterrestrials when she was a child.

Nor is Philip Levine still running for governor; he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Andrew Gillum, yet his signs remain posted all over Miami. But Republican Marili Cancio did advance to the general election, making her signs (“We CAN do better with CANcio!”) handily applicable in her attempt to unseat incumbent Annette Taddeo in the state senate.

Signs are supposed to be taken down within a month of an election, according to most city and county codes, and Florida Statute 106-1435 states that “each candidate shall make a good faith effort to remove all political campaign advertisements within thirty days.”

But many do not. Enforcement, which can include fines up to $500, is scattershot and a low priority. We’re left with signage that is ugly, irrelevant and distracting to already distracted drivers on top of tacky retail signage that is poorly regulated. Campaign signs frequently share fence space with “Fast Cash 4 Your House” or “Repair Your Credit” or “For Rent” signs.

“It adds to the visual pollution we see throughout greater Miami, and it looks exactly like a third-world country,” said Grace Solares, a community activist who lives in North Coconut Grove. “It’s trashy. It’s aesthetically wrong. Sometimes you’ll see a sign that’s been left in place for years.”

Solares, who also objects to billboard-sized advertising on the sides of buildings, ran unsuccessfully for a Miami city commission seat in 2015. She said she and campaign staff members removed her signs “immediately,” she said. She was out collecting signs the day after she lost.

She said signs are a useful tool for a candidate running a grass-roots campaign who needs exposure but doesn’t have enough money for television and radio ads.

“It’s a less expensive way for them to get their name out there,” she said.

But abuse of signage regulations is rampant. Not only are they not removed but they are posted where they are prohibited. They cannot be located within 5 feet of a right of way or a residential property line, according to Miami-Dade County and most municipal rules. Nor can they be attached to utility poles or placed in roadway medians.

Yet you’ll observe signs on swales and adjacent to sidewalks, such as those in Doral for city council candidates Pete Cabrera and Digna Cabral and urging residents to vote yes for a $150-million bond issue.

Signage overkill is a problem. Miami Commissioner Ken Russell had at least 100 signs stretching from one end of a fence to another on a vacant lot in Coconut Grove. In Coral Gables, homeowners may only post one sign per candidate on their property.

Size matters. In the county and many cities, signs cannot exceed 22 by 28 inches. In Pinecrest, it’s “a maximum sign area per property of 6 square feet in residential districts.” In Miami, signs must conform to Miami 21 zoning guidelines and cannot be larger than 4 square feet in residential areas and 15 square feet in commercial areas.

But candidates – or their staff members – flout the rules.

Three years ago, dueling signs for Tomas Regalado and Francis Suarez were posted at adjoining vacant residential lots on Southwest Seventh Street in the city of Miami, and an El Nuevo Herald reporter measured Regalado’s sign at 30 square feet and Suarez’s sign at 55 square feet.

The county’s code compliance inspectors notify a candidate’s office if signs are in the right of way, with enforcement “tailored toward the reduction of life-safety traffic concerns,” said Tere Florin, communications manager for the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. They also respond to complaints, but there have been “very few in recent years related to political signs not located on the right of way,” she said.

“By and large, there is immediate compliance, which is our ultimate goal,” Florin said. “If the signs are not removed, our staff removes them and holds them at the county’s Permitting and Inspection Center for them to pick up. This, however, is rare.”

Solares advocates heavier fines and strict enforcement. Otherwise, sign blight will only get worse.

“The candidates – not their campaign funds – should be personally fined $1,000 per sign if not removed within 15 days,” she said. “That will absolutely give them a heart attack. Make the candidates responsible for keeping cities clean.

“The problem is, you’re asking politicians to write laws that will affect them and their wallets, so we’ll see if that ever gets done.”