CLEARWATER — In 2009, the city got into a legal fight with a bait and tackle shop that painted a mural of a half-dozen game fish on an outside wall facing the street. The city called this painting an illegal sign — and the city lost in court.
It was an embarrassing defeat that set Clearwater on a long and twisting journey to loosen up its famously strict sign laws. This task has taken three years and has involved two different citizens' task forces.
The end result comes tonight as the City Council is expected to make sweeping changes to Clearwater's sign code.
The goal is to make the rules more business-friendly by giving businesses more flexibility in displaying their names or even their daily lunch specials. However, city officials don't want to go too far in that direction either.
They don't want Clearwater to backslide into the ugly, cluttered-looking sign forest that once dominated thoroughfares like Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. That was in the 1980s, before many businesses were gradually forced to downsize or lower their signs.
"Beauty is good for business. You're doing something in Clearwater because it's good for business and good for the community. It's a balanced approach," Jacksonville lawyer Bill Brinton told the City Council on Monday. A lawyer who specializes in billboard litigation, he was hired by Clearwater to provide legal expertise on the sign issue.
The council will likely approve numerous changes to the sign code, including the following:
• Let businesses have slightly larger freestanding signs.
• Allow businesses to have more signage attached to their buildings — up to 24 square feet of signs, or up to 36 square feet if they use certain types of higher-quality signs. Previously, businesses had to follow a formula that limited attached signs to 20 to 24 square feet.
• Allow businesses on corner lots to have a sign fronting each street.
• Allow businesses along U.S. 19 to put up higher signs if they're located next to an elevated roadway.
• Restaurants and stores will be allowed to put sandwich board signs on sidewalks outside their businesses throughout the city — not just in downtown and on Clearwater Beach, the way it's been until now.
Some things won't change. For instance, Clearwater will still prohibit billboards and most digital signs.
City Council members were briefed about the proposed changes at their Monday work session. They will vote at tonight's meeting.
City Manager Bill Horne asked the council to take ownership of the new sign code. That's because business owners who have a problem with Clearwater's rules will often take their grievances to a City Council member.
Council members expressed support for the new rules.
"These were, in fact, done in conjunction with the business community," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "And they are looser than what was there before."
Two business groups helped draw up the new rules. In 2009, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber formed a Government Affairs Task Force that reviewed the sign ordinance. And last year, then-Mayor Frank Hibbard convened a Business Task Force to look for ways to make the city's rules more user-friendly.
And what about the mural of game fish that started this whole process? The Complete Angler, the bait shop that painted the mural and beat the city in court, has closed. Its mural is long gone.
Would that mural have passed muster under Clearwater's new sign code? After all this time, that's still not a simple question.
Page 62 of the new 68-page sign ordinance states that artwork displayed on the outside of a business must not identify "a product, service or business sold or available on the property" where it's displayed.
That's what got the Complete Angler into hot water with the city, although the business owners argued that their fish mural wasn't an advertisement.
"Any time someone wants to talk to us about something like this, we'll look at our definition of 'artwork' and we'll look at our definition of 'sign,' and we'll make a decision based on that," said assistant planning director Gina Clayton. "It's really on a case-by-case basis.
"Art's one of those areas that's not always crystal clear."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.