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Clearwater pays to settle fish mural case

This is the mural on an outside wall of the Complete Angler shop that Clearwater city officials termed a sign. The city ruling was overturned in court.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

This is the mural on an outside wall of the Complete Angler shop that Clearwater city officials termed a sign. The city ruling was overturned in court.

CLEARWATER — They say you can't fight City Hall, but Herb Quintero did it and won.

He's still mad, though, because he doubts the city will change its ways.

Clearwater will pay $55,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by Quintero in the case of a mural that's painted on the outside of his bait and tackle shop, the Complete Angler.

Quintero and his wife, Lori, opened the store at 705 N Fort Harrison Ave. last year, and they always have contended the painting of six game fish is a work of art, not a sign. The city claimed it was an unauthorized sign and a code violation and started fining the Quinteros hundreds of dollars when they refused to remove it.

The case triggered an avalanche of negative publicity for Clearwater as the Quinteros accused the city of violating their First Amendment rights. The dispute ended up in federal court, where things did not go the city's way.

Clearwater law forbids murals on the outside walls of a business that depict a product the business is selling. City attorneys had said Clearwater was on firm legal footing when it cited the bait shop. But two federal judges who conducted hearings on the case did not agree.

U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore and U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth Jenkins bluntly questioned the legal validity of the city's position. They called the mural "noncommercial speech protected by the First Amendment" and said the city's legal reasoning "does not withstand strict scrutiny."

So city attorneys negotiated a settlement in the case. It must be approved by the City Council, which will discuss it Monday.

Quintero said the $55,000 payment is for his legal costs. It will go to his attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union who represented him in federal court.

As part of the settlement, Quintero gets to keep his mural and to have the artist finish it. He gets back nearly $700 in fines the city made him pay.

But he doesn't feel triumphant or vindicated, because he doubts the city will change the way it does business.

"I don't care about the money. It's never been about the fish," Quintero said. "It's been about the government overreaching and telling us what to do just because they said so."

However, Clearwater officials say they'll have to rethink how the city enforces its sign code, especially as it pertains to businesses' murals.

"It's not going to be status quo," said City Manager Bill Horne. "Something is going to change."

This is the second time a business owner successfully has challenged Clearwater's sign ordinance in court in a case that doesn't involve a traditional sign. 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.

The city's lawyers said that was a narrow ruling that dealt only with the Piramida case. They say the same about the Complete Angler case.

Calls to city attorney Pam Akin were referred to city spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

"This ruling pertains only to this business," Castelli said. But she added that city attorneys and code enforcers will be reviewing what steps they should take in the future. "We're going to look at the section of the sign code that specifically talks about murals."

Clearwater officials have defended the city's strict sign ordinance, which forced many 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.

But many people thought the city went too far in cracking down on a bait shop's mural of fish along an unsightly stretch of N Fort Harrison Avenue. And neighboring cities like Dunedin are less hostile to businesses' murals.

Responding to complaints from businesses, the city has asked the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce to suggest changes to the sign codes. The city has been waiting for those suggestions. But chamber officials have found that task to be more complicated than they expected.

"People are looking for instant oatmeal right now," said chamber president Bob Clifford.

He expects the chamber to recommend that Clearwater establish rules for murals in a separate law, apart from the city's 22-page sign ordinance. "Our research around Florida indicates that murals, in most cities, fall under a separate set of guidelines."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater pays to settle fish mural case 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 9:08pm]
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