CLEARWATER — The mural depicts a swordfish, a redfish, a grouper and a snook. The owner of a local bait and tackle shop thought it would be a cool thing to have painted on the side of his building. Now he's fighting with city officials who say it must go.
Clearwater code enforcers say the mural amounts to an unauthorized sign, and it must be painted over by Monday. The tackle shop's owner says the mural is art, and that bureaucrats should leave him alone as he keeps a small business afloat in a blighted area of Clearwater.
"It isn't right. The city is showing a total disregard for our First Amendment rights," said Herb Quintero, owner of the Complete Angler at 705 N Fort Harrison Ave.
"It's a picture of fish. I have parents coming in here who are taking their kids fishing, and they'll show the kids this mural and say, 'Here's a snook, here's a redfish.' "
However, officials say they're simply enforcing Clearwater's strict sign ordinance. The 22-page ordinance, which forced many Clearwater businesses to downsize their signs beginning in the 1990s, is sometimes credited with improving the look of main thoroughfares such as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
"We are holding him to the same standards that we're holding every other business to," said city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli. "The mural is depicting what he's selling. It's signage. You have to go through the permitting process, which he has not done and refuses to do."
Officials first met with Quintero last June after the mural went up, Castelli said.
Quintero says he's been cited five times for violating the sign ordinance, and recently paid a $690 fine.
The city has given him until Monday — one month after his court date — to paint over the fish or face more fines. He hasn't decided what to do.
"I don't want a sign permit. It's not a sign," Quintero said. He says he's been told that, if he applies for a sign permit, the city's ordinance might allow him to keep only a fraction of the mural.
Vice Mayor George Cretekos sympathizes with the tackle store's situation.
"I feel our sign code is too restrictive and it doesn't allow for creativity," Cretekos said. He's asking the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce to consult its members and suggest some changes to the rules.
The Complete Angler opened almost a year ago near the Seminole Boat Ramp in the Old Clearwater Bay neighborhood north of downtown. The brightly colored fish mural faces a stretch of N Fort Harrison Avenue that has its share of vacant, run-down buildings.
"This used to be a flourishing tourist corridor," said Quintero, adding that he has to contend with vagrants and prostitutes. "They've run so many businesses out of here. Downtown Clearwater's a ghost town. I've lived here my whole life and it makes me sick to my stomach."
Clearwater's strict sign ordinance has occasionally brought it into conflict with businesses. Most famously, the city once fought with Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse over some fiberglass cows displayed outside its restaurant on U.S. 19.
More recently, the city disagreed with Jamba Juice over the signs that the smoothie chain wanted to put outside its downtown location that opened in 2007.
That Jamba Juice closed a few weeks ago due to a lack of business.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.