Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

Largo commissioners see both sides of sign issue


Published:   |   Updated: March 16, 2014 at 05:12 PM

LARGO — City leaders thought 10 years would be more than enough time for businesses to replace tall, “tacky” signs cluttering the roadways with less-obtrusive versions at ground level.

But with three years left to comply with a change in Largo’s ordinance, few merchants have made the conversion. About 750 others haven’t shown much interest in doing so.

City staff members last week told Largo commissioners only a handful of people have taken advantage of a $250 incentive to encourage removal of elevated “pole” signs.

There have been 125 monument-style signs built to conform with the 2007 ordinance, some by recently opened gas stations and restaurants, and others by businesses and the like that had to make the conversion when applying for permits to erect something new.

As the 2017 deadline approaches, the problem with the city’s vision for creating a more attractive streetscape is that making it happen is expensive for individual business owners.

“It’s enough to be a burden on just about any business,” said Jack Sonnenberg, who put up a new steel LED sign last fall in front of his insurance agency on West Bay Drive.

Sonnenberg is one of only four business owners to use the incentive so far. He didn’t want to say exactly how much it cost to install the new sign, but he said it was a “major capital investment” and “not a few thousand dollars.”

“It was coming and, quite frankly, I was under the impression that everyone was going to make an effort to do it sooner, but I think some of them are going to drag their feet and just hope they change the law,” Sonnenberg said.

Several commissioners at a workshop meeting last week wondered if it even was possible to get hundreds of businesses to comply with the new rules.

“There’s no way we can get 753 businesses to change their signs in three years. It’s impossible,” said Commissioner James Robinson. “Businesses will leave the city of Largo if we start fining them because their sign’s not up to date with our ordinance.”

Notices have been sent each year with annual business tax bills since the ordinance passed in 2007.

The city also has made allowances for taller signs along raised sections of the U.S. 19 highway project and permitted bigger signs for buildings that are more than three stories high.

After an outcry by merchants, the city passed a temporary sign “stimulus package” in 2010, permitting extra banner and “feather” signs to grab more attention during the economic slump.

Mayor Pat Gerard, who was on the commission when the ordinance passed in 2007, admitted the city needed to do more to inform businesses about the upcoming compliance deadline. He even floated the idea of offering a bigger incentive than $250.

“It’s about having a backbone, too, and being willing to say this is what we want for our city. It’s also about having a vision for our city,” she said.

“We can continue to look tacky, but that’s not what we want.”

Commissioner Curtis Holmes, though, said the whole plan contradicts the city’s other efforts to incentivize more businesses moving in since the economic downturn.

For his office complex on Belcher Road to comply with the law, the 10 business owners listed on a raised marquee would have to spend at least $20,000 to build a large monument sign on the ground. Because of limitations on the size of the sign, he doubts motorists passing by would be able to read the names listed.

He said existing businesses should be allowed to keep their current signs and only be required to change if their sign is damaged or replaced.

Commission member Michael Smith predicted a revolt if the rules weren’t modified or the compliance deadline extended.

“I just can’t see this as business-friendly at all, especially in this economy,” he said.

“In a few years, we’re going to be here, like I said, with pitchforks and axes after all of our heads, and I really don’t want to be here for that.”

Vice Mayor Woody Brown said it would be unfair to those who complied to extend the deadline, but he was open to the possibility of offering a larger incentive.

Gerard said simply waiting for businesses to comply by allowing them to keep existing signs would take too long.

“It’s not just going to happen. By attrition, it’ll take 40 to 50 years,” she said.

By the end of the discussion, city commissioners remained divided on the matter and asked the city’s planning staff to look into a better marketing campaign for the ordinance and also investigate how other cities have encouraged businesses to change their signs.

Not all businesses find the new ordinance overbearing.

The Fairway Village mobile home community had set aside $18,000 to replace its aging sign on Belcher Road, and wanted to get ahead of an expected rush to sign companies.

Manager Christine Giordano expects some businesses will balk, but she says the change will make it easier for drivers to navigate the city’s commercial corridors.

“I think it’s a positive thing,” she said. “It will be easier for people while driving to see the signs on the ground.”

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-1277(727) 215-1277

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