CLEARWATER — A bait and tackle shop has been battling with city officials over a mural on its building that depicts game fish, which the city views as an unauthorized business sign. So the shop has covered up the artwork — with a banner displaying the text of the First Amendment.
"I'm not trying to be difficult, but I can't just let them railroad over me," says Herb Quintero, owner of the Complete Angler at 705 N Fort Harrison Ave., who argues that the painting is a work of art and is not a sign.
Code enforcement officials say that, because the shop sells bait fish as well as tackle for fishing, its fish mural is essentially a large roadside advertisement.
The officials who have fined Quintero nearly $700 have been getting barraged with angry phone calls and e-mails about the case, with some Clearwater residents being sharply critical of the city government's stance.
But inspectors say they're only enforcing Clearwater's strict sign ordinance, which limits the number and size of the signs that a business is allowed to display. The city's rules forbid murals on the outside walls of a business that depict a product that the business is selling.
Quintero, who started getting cited by code enforcers last June after his mural went up, disagrees with the city's premise.
"As passionate as they are that it's a sign, I'm that much more passionate that it's not," he said. "If it doesn't have text or a logo, how can it be signage?"
Jeff Kronschnabl, the city's director of development and neighborhood services, says inspectors have cited businesses for their murals before.
He argues that the city has no choice but to enforce its codes consistently and impartially, without making any exceptions. If not, he said, then something like an adult entertainment business could display a large mural depicting its products.
A mural like that would spark complaints. But, Kronschnabl said, if the city cracked down on a racy mural and gave a fish mural a pass, then the city would be trying to dictate the content of murals, and that would be a First Amendment issue.
"If he can do that, then that means everybody else has a right to do that," Kronschnabl said.
The Complete Angler's mural consists of simple paintings of six game fish such as grouper and snook. Quintero covered it up because, if he hadn't, he would have been cited again on Monday. He can't afford to keep paying fines indefinitely.
Mayor Frank Hibbard defends the city's sign ordinance, which forced many Clearwater businesses to downsize or lower their signs beginning in the 1980s. The rules are credited with reducing visual clutter and improving the look of main thoroughfares such as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
Hibbard said the city has asked the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce to poll its members and suggest changes to the sign rules if businesses want them to be more flexible.
Like Kronschnabl, the mayor argues that the city has to be consistent in enforcing its sign code.
"Let's say a ladies' lingerie shop puts up a mural — pictures of women in lingerie. That breaks the code and it's a problem," Hibbard said. "You can't pick and choose."
For his part, Quintero says this isn't over. He points to other businesses' murals around the city that he says code enforcers are leaving alone.
Although Quintero pleaded no contest to his city code violations in Pinellas Circuit Court last month, he's aware that another business owner challenged Clearwater's sign ordinance in court and won.
In 2006, the city fined what was then an Egyptian-themed restaurant named Piramida for etching large hieroglyphics onto its building on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. The restaurant's owner successfully appealed in court.
But the city's lawyers say that court rendered a narrow ruling that dealt only with the Piramida case. They say Clearwater is on firm legal footing in the case of the Complete Angler.
"The court didn't strike down the city's ordinance or rule it unconstitutional," said Assistant City Attorney Leslie Dougall-Sides. "Each case has different facts, and we look at each case separately."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.