County hires legal help for sign code lawsuit


Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 6:31 p.m.

Alachua County needs a lawyer — and it’s hiring one.

Precious Metal Group LLC has filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that the county’s sign code is unconstitutional. The County Commission approved the hiring of Gary Edinger, a Gainesville-based attorney specializing in First Amendment-related cases and federal court litigation, at Tuesday’s meeting.

Edinger will work with County Attorney Dave Wagner and staff on the case. A general estimate places the cost of his services at about $75,000, although the final total could be lower or higher. The county will pay for Edinger’s help, and for the case’s legal fees as a whole, using money from its self-insurance fund.

If it loses the case, it could be required to pay Precious Metal Group’s legal fees.

The Alachua County Code Enforcement Board found the company guilty of two sign code violations in September based on a notice of violation issued by a code enforcement officer in May.

A person was holding a sign that read “We Buy Gold” at the intersection of Southwest 13th Street and Williston Road, Wagner said.

The violations were related to rules regarding prohibited portable signs and having signs in the right of way, according to Tuesday’s meeting agenda. Precious Metal Group filed its complaint on Jan. 15.

Commissioners discussed the county sign code’s potential implications for panhandlers or political sign-holders, but Wagner said non-commercial speech, such as panhandling, receives greater legal protection than commercial speech.

Staff will also review the sign code to determine if any potential changes should be considered in light of issues raised by this lawsuit, Wagner said.

In other business Tuesday, the commission debated possible changes to a letter the county plans to send to the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the Koppers Superfund site and its related consent decree, which is the legal agreement on the cleanup between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Beazer East, the company legally responsible for the contaminated property.

Chris Bird, the county environmental protection director, said he couldn’t guarantee the cleanup effort would run smoothly without any aspects slipping through the cracks but promised county staff would try its best to monitor the project and keep that from happening.

During public comment on the issue, Sandra Watts Kennedy, president of the Stephen Foster Neighborhood Association Inc., urged the county to reject the cleanup plan.

“There’s never any time to stop and give up. Don’t give up,” she said. “Please reject this. It’s inadequate. It will create a ticking time-bomb.”

Bird countered that, from the staff’s perspective, the parties involved need to move forward with the cleanup despite its inadequacies.

“We know it’s not perfect,” he said. However, rejecting the plan would further delay action on the decades-long problem.

“We don’t want to be talking about this five years from now and nothing’s been done to help,” he told the commission.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson asked staff to modify the letter to include a section emphasizing the county’s view that the current cleanup plan doesn’t do enough.

Pinkoson said the message he wants to send is this: “These are your people, you know, and you’re supposed to be trying to do as much as you can to protect them.”

County staff will return in March with a revised letter for the commission’s approval.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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