LARGO - Scores of small business owners who pleaded to keep their pole signs left a big impression on city leaders as commissioners recently moved to repeal a 12-year-old June deadline banning the signs.
For now, the businesses can breathe a sigh of relief after commissioners voted 5-2 on first reading to adopt an ordinance that officials called a "great compromise" by both eliminating the deadline and strengthening the code to expedite the transition to monument signs.
"This is a damn shy better than the existing law," said Commissioner Curtis Holmes, who has been the most vocal critic of the sign code. "This is much looser. It gives you (business owners) more leeway in compliance. It is not perfect, but it's a lot better than what we have."
Besides eliminating the June deadline, which would have led to fines for nearly 600 property owners, changes to the code state that signs must meet minimum appearance standards, including the foundation, rust, dents, holes, exposed electrical components and proper landscaping.
Any nonconforming sign that would require a permit in order to be modified or repaired would now have to be removed or replaced with a monument sign within 90 days.
Previous coverage: Largo still wavering on deadline for sign compliance
Also, changing the Master Signage Plan as a result of adding or modifying signage on a property would mean all signs would have to be replaced.
Amendments were also made to target abandoned signs and even conforming multitenant signs that are 60 percent or more blank.
Another critic of the June deadline, Commissioner Jamie Robinson, said the changes are a win for everybody.
"It's a great compromise," Robinson said. "It's not an end date. If your sign just needs maintenance, you can go ahead and fix it. If it needs to be repaired and is damaged and it has to be replaced, then . the replacement is going to be a monument sign."
Among the people pleased with the decision was Mary Byrd, owner of the Frame Factory on East Bay Drive.
Byrd said she has gotten several estimates for monument signs and the least expensive was $28,000.
But, she said losing the sign, which has been standing in front of her business since 1974, would be costly in other ways, as well.
"Our marquee is considered a landmark by many residents and visitors from all over," she said. "So, I'm more than happy to refurbish the face of our marquee and keep it in pristine condition if you allow me to keep it. It is my main and only source of identity."
Mayor Woody Brown, who had previously stated he was against repealing the deadline, said the flood of stories such as Byrd's was enough evidence to change his mind.
"My mission to improve Largo across the board is steadfast," he said. "That said, I think the testimony today made me more compassionate to different situations."
Not everyone was convinced, though.
Commissioner Michael Smith said he thought the changes would cause confusion and was just delaying the inevitable.
Commissioner Samantha Fenger, who joined Smith in voting against changing the ordinance, also said her peers needed to consider those who followed the rules and paid for monument signs already.
"What message are we sending to the businesses that have already come into compliance, spent the money to come into compliance, whether it was wall signage or monument signs?" she asked. "We're sending a message and we're also setting a precedent that we are not remaining steadfast."
Fenger wasn't the only one concerned about setting a bad precedent.
Longtime Public Works Director Brian Usher, who retired last month, wrote a letter to commissioners before the meeting strongly urging them not to roll back the ordinance.
"Giving in to those who have not complied sends a terrible message not only to those who did comply, but also to the community as a whole," he wrote. "If you concede on this, what will be next? Will property maintenance and safety be deemed too burdensome and expensive? At no time in my life, either in school on assignments nor in my career with projects was I or anyone ever rewarded for not doing what was required. Procrastinating and obstruction should never be rewarded."
He added that the decision would be detrimental to the morale and commitment of city staff.
"The message will be 'we know you fought for this, but the political fallout isn't worth it, sorry,'" he wrote. "This will have a chilling effect across the staff as they will question whether tackling tough issues will be worth the effort, whether the commission may also leave them hanging out to dry if a few people complain."
Brown, however, said voting for the revised ordinance doesn't mean the city is going back on its word, because it still has teeth.
"I don't think there's a business that has come into compliance for their sign that was compelled to do so that wouldn't be compelled to do so moving forward with this ordinance," he said.
Brown said the city looks much better than it did 12 years ago, and it didn't need a hard deadline to do it, so why impose one now.
"My goal is to continue that trend," he said. "Obviously, we've been able to do that without a hammer, if you will."
The commission will vote on the ordinance a second and final time April 2.