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Business task force to review ways to simplify Clearwater city code

CLEARWATER — Consider the sandwich board.

Two boards, angled like an A, advertising the latest sale or the soup du jour. A classic of modern promotion, seen on sidewalks across the world. And in Clearwater, completely illegal.

Confused? Don't worry — city leaders understand. The sandwich-board ban is one of many rules in the city code seen as too complex, too baffling, for the typical small-business owner to understand.

To clear the fog, Mayor Frank Hibbard convened a Business Task Force of architects, business leaders, engineers and neighborhood advocates in April to look for ways to make the city's rules more user-friendly.

And on Thursday, after talks between the task force and city officials, the City Council will choose which recommendations make enough sense to pass into law.

Ideas on the table: a one-stop service center for permit reviews; streamlined development applications; and a city "ombudsman" to guide businesses through the rigamaroles of city planning.

The proposed changes would be most directly felt by entrepreneurs and business owners who feel blocked by bureaucratic logjams. The city's planning process has long been slammed as overly complicated; the community development code, the rulebook for city growth, is 700 pages long.

"It's very difficult," said Roger Larson, a committee chairman with the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, "for Joe Business Guy to pick up the code and know what he can do."

Most of the task force's recommendations aim to trim the fat of city-business dealings, which can quickly grow in cost when developers hire consultants like architects and arborists. Some business owners pay tens of thousands of dollars on detailed blueprints, only to be told their project was rejected.

"That's a barrier to entry for small-business people," said task force chairman Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney and son of the former mayor. "That's not helpful in stimulating the local economy or creating jobs."

(Aungst's law firm, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, represented the St. Petersburg Times in a real estate deal with the city this year.)

Not every task force idea was roundly accepted by officials: Of the members' 73 recommendations, just less than half got city staff's immediate support. Council members, who will have the final say, will discuss the ideas Thursday.

Some provisions will have to wait for a discussion next month. Those ideas deal with the sign code, changing the rules for business banners, umbrellas and electronic message boards. On some, the task force and officials have yet to find common ground.

One example: Task force members want businesses citywide to be able to use a particular type of sign if they follow the rules, while city officials want to restrict those signs to busy sidewalks like the beach and the downtown.

The sign in contention: the modern sandwich board.

It remains, for now, illegal.

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Business task force to review ways to simplify Clearwater city code 11/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 7:38pm]
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