City lawyer: Memorial Arena signs are illegal

General Counsel: Signs advertising law firm illegal by both city code, state law

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Signs advertising for a law firm hung on the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena are illegal by both city code and state statute, according to the city's lawyer.

General Counsel Jason R. Gabriel sent a legal memo to the City Council explaining that the city's charter and ordinance code do not permit the signs, which have been at the center of a debate between council members. Some want the signs removed and others say the ads bring in much-needed revenue for the city.

Gabriel said at least two of the signs, which advertise for local law firm Hunt, Green & James, violate a state law that requires commercial signs within 660 feet of the nearest edge of a federal-aid primary highway (the Hart Expressway) to be "directly related" to the Arena's activities, products or services. Since the Arena does not offer legal services, the signs are not permitted, Gabriel explained.

"It basically says as a matter of city law -- and state law for that matter -- the exterior signage is unlawful," Gabriel said.

DOCUMENT: General Counsel opinion on Arena signs

At least one of the signs is in violation of a Florida Statue because it is visible from the Hart Bridge and has not been permitted by the Department of Transportation. DOT issued a letter to the city April 13 saying that the city had 30 days to either obtain a permit for the sign, remove the sign or show documentation of an exemption to the statute.

The law firm advertising with the signs has fired back at the city, claiming the city violated a confidentiality clause in its partnership with Hunt, Green & James.

The law firm said it would end its sponsorship agreement with the Arena effective April 30, but demanded that the monies paid for the sponsorship be repaid to the firm. Because of the alleged confidentiality violation and other alleged contract breaches, Hunt, Green & James also demanded that the signs on the Arena stay up until April 30, 2016 at no charge to the law firm.

But in his memo, Gabriel said that signs on the outside of the Arena are not allowed simply because they are part of sponsorship agreement. He said the signs would have to advertise products, activities or services provided at the Arena, would have to sponsor a particular project, activity or event at the Arena, would have to name the Arena or would have to be permitted by a waiver of the city code by the City Council.

Gabriel said that the City Council can amend the city code to allow for the signs, as long as the amendment does not conflict with state law. That means all the signs except the two that are violating the state statute could be permitted, if the council chose to amend the code.

But for now they will have to come down, he said.

"The next step is to work with our partner SMG to facilitate the removal of the signs," Gabriel said.

City Councilman Bill Bishop wants the signs removed completely from the Arena. He introduced a bill that would change the zoning of the Arena, which would change the restrictions on advertisements.

"My understanding is they will need to come down," Bishop said. "They are not legal under city law and that should've never been put up in the first place. Just because we have a contract to do something illegal, the contract by definition is not enforceable."

City Councilman Richard Clark made an amendment to Bishop's bill that would still allow some signage but would limit the size and scope.

Bishop said the Arena doesn't need to be kept in the same zoning area as the sports complex, saying it's a more iconic structure.

The City Council will revisit whether to adopt Bishop's original bill or the version with Clark's amendment when they meet again on May 12.

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