LARGO — After learning some new information, this city's elected leaders are having serious second thoughts about Largo's strict sign law. Some are ready to do away with it entirely, while others aren't prepared to go that far.
Seven years ago, Largo commissioners passed a citywide ban on signs that are mounted on poles. They gave businesses 10 years to replace their signs with low-profile monument signs that hug the ground.
That deadline is now three years away. After that, the city is supposed to start imposing fines on businesses that don't comply. The current crop of city commissioners, most of whom weren't in office when the ban passed, talked Tuesday night about how few Largo businesses have changed their signs at this point.
They found the actual numbers to be eye-opening. Over seven years, 49 pole signs in Largo have been converted to monument signs. Another 76 monument signs have been installed by new businesses.
But that leaves a whopping 753 pole signs still standing in Largo, with only three years to go.
This prompted three commissioners to blast the sign law as unfriendly to businesses because new monument signs cost thousands of dollars.
"It's ridiculous. I just can't believe that we're doing this," said Commissioner Jamie Robinson. "There's no way we can get 753 businesses to change their signs in three years."
"The proof is in the pudding. You've had very few businesses comply with this thing," added Commissioner Curtis Holmes, whose insurance firm will have to pay for a new sign. "There should be a grandfather clause if you've got a perfectly good pole sign."
Commissioner Michael Smith predicted that in three years, outraged business owners would descend on City Hall with "pitchforks and axes."
Three other members of the commission — Mayor Pat Gerard, Vice Mayor Woody Brown and Commissioner Robert Murray — don't want to get rid of the law. But they appear willing to extend the deadline because the economy has been so bad for so long.
"You can't just drop a thing and say 'Oh well' to those people who have converted or put in the money to put in monument signs," Gerard said. "It's about having a backbone, too, and being willing to say this is what we want for our city. It's also about having a vision for our city. We can continue to look tacky, but that's not what we want."
"I'm a business owner myself. I'm sensitive to costs," said Brown, a Largo chiropractor whose business has a wall sign, which is allowed. But he also thought scrapping the law at this point would be unfair to businesses that have already invested in monument signs.
A seventh Largo commissioner, Harriet Crozier, would be the swing vote on the issue, but she was absent from Tuesday's work session.
The bottom line: A very divided City Commission will take this up again at a later date.
The goal of Largo's law is to reduce sign clutter. Largo officials compare their law to Clearwater's sign code, which is credited with dramatically improving the look of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. That road was an ugly, cluttered-looking sign forest in the 1980s before many businesses were gradually forced to downsize or lower their signs.
Largo commissioners do agree on a couple of things. They think Largo needs a much better marketing campaign to inform businesses about the sign law and the 2017 deadline. Many business owners are simply unaware of it.
They also want to know more about how other cities have handled this — especially Clearwater.
Largo gives grants of $250 to businesses that are replacing pole signs with monument signs. Only three businesses have taken advantage of the program. The mayor called it a "measly" amount.
"Going back to the vision we have for our city, if we want to see it carried out, maybe we need to be serious about it … $250 is not serious," Gerard said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.