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Pinellas Park is strict about human signs violating its sign ordinance

Jesse Hild, 16, left, and Josh Mecca, 17, both of Pinellas Park, try to drum up business for Liberty Tax Service, 6985 66th St. N in Pinellas Park, on Wednesday. The city has been citing so-called mascot signs.

LARA CERRI | Times

Jesse Hild, 16, left, and Josh Mecca, 17, both of Pinellas Park, try to drum up business for Liberty Tax Service, 6985 66th St. N in Pinellas Park, on Wednesday. The city has been citing so-called mascot signs.

PINELLAS PARK

Officials here have great respect for patriotic symbols like the Statue of Liberty, as long as she stays off the street and keeps her torch in the air rather than waving at passing drivers.

If she does wave, and she's outside a business, then Lady Liberty will be told to move along or risk being cited for violating the city's sign ordinance. The same goes for Uncle Sam, walking foodstuffs, or a guy holding a sign.

"It's a safety thing," said Susan Walker, the city's neighborhood services administrator, who oversees code enforcement. "We really, really place a lot of emphasis on safety in the community."

Lady Liberties, Uncle Sams, slices of pizza or acrobats twirling signs could distract drivers, she said. They could also block sight lines at corners and exits from parking lots. And signs that are temporarily placed in rights of way could fall over into traffic and cause an accident, she said.

• • •

Since March of last year, Pinellas Park has issued 1,106 warnings concerning temporary signs. Violators, she said, get a single warning, then get cited for repeated offenses at $188 per citation. If a business loses in court and is found guilty, but continues to violate the ordinance, she said, the fine doubles to $376 per offense.

Walker said it's unclear how many of the warnings in the past year were issued because of human signs, but city records show that seven of those were court citations, meaning the companies did not remove the sign after receiving the warning. Three of those were issued this year against Liberty Tax Service. Those cases are working their way through the court system.

And Liberty Tax expects to win, said Steven Doletzky, owner of the Pinellas Park branches and Liberty's area developer for the Tampa/St. Petersburg region.

"We want to stand up for what we feel are our rights," Doletzky said. "We see some challenges in the code with respect to how it's being enforced."

It's an argument, Doletzky said, that Liberty is quite familiar with.

"In every jurisdiction that we challenged (the rule), we've won at the state level," Doletzky said. "The case law … fully supports our right to dress up" and wave at cars.

• • •

Pinellas Park isn't the first to face a fight from a business owner who wants to advertise his business by having a "living" sign wave at passersby. Clearwater fought that battle a couple of years ago against a pierogi. The upshot is that Clearwater's sign ordinance is less strict than Pinellas Park's. People can dress up, but they may not be able to carry signs if the size of the sign when added to existing signage exceeds the limitations.

"We took the sign out of (Lady Liberty's) hand," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. "She can walk around."

The pierogi would also be welcome to walk around, Horne said. The difficulty is that, while people recognize the Statue of Liberty and have no problem connecting it with the nearby tax service, the pierogi is not so readily identifiable. Without the sign, it was a big, white puffy dumpling that had people asking, "what is this thing?"

Seminole's ordinance against "mascot signs" is similar to Clearwater's, community development director Mark Ely said.

Largo had a battle with Liberty Tax last year but was able to work out a settlement, said community development director Carol Stricklin. Although generally banned, Largo's code has several permutations concerning "non-conventional forms of advertising" that allow Liberty Tax and others some wiggle room to comply while still having their signs. Largo, she said, looks on the situation as a freedom of speech type of issue.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is the mecca for human signs. The city does not ban them, said Gary Bush, director of the code compliance assistance department.

"We don't cite that," Bush said.

Walker, Pinellas Park's neighborhood services administrator, agreed the city seems to be stricter than most by banning both the sign and the character.

"The character itself is designed to attract business," Walker said. "Even if they were a pierogi, we'd probably cite them for being a pierogi."

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas Park is strict about human signs violating its sign ordinance 03/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 19, 2011 4:31am]
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