Stores' outdoor displays pose a dilemma for Clearwater

CLEARWATER

The battlefield is a sandy sidewalk dotted with neon-colored rafts and inflatable sharks.

Outside the new Surf Style, the $11 million megastore that opened this summer on Clearwater Beach, a few bins give a small taste of the tourist-tempting merchandise inside.

The store's owners call the outdoor displays a fact of the beach, a fun showcase that gives color and brings business.

But the city says the displays are illegal — and it's willing to fight to have them removed.

Surf Style is ground zero for a new city conflict between the beach's planned aesthetic and businesses' right to promote.

The debate draws parallels to old cases, like the city's crusade against a bait shop's fish mural, that led critics to call the city heavy-handed and antibusiness.

But city leaders say Surf Style's display encroaches on public land and disrupts a Clearwater Beach look that the city has spent tens of millions of dollars to improve.

"I don't want a bazaar. I don't want a sidewalk sale, 365 days of the year," Mayor Frank Hibbard said at a meeting earlier this month. "I just don't know how to regulate it in a way that it can still look decent and orderly."

• • •

Outdoor displays are a decades-old retail hook, one of the few competitive advantages that beach tchotchke shops can use to stay afloat.

Their business depends on the season, the weather and the whims of tourists. With competitors just a few steps away, any bright touch can make or break a sale.

"It's not a coincidence that all the beach merchants are asking for them," said Gilad Ovaknin, a controller for the Surf Style beachwear chain.

That doesn't mean it fits city code, officials said. Code enforcement officers in the last year have spotted racks of gag T-shirts, tie-dye dresses, sweaters and string bikinis on the sidewalks outside beach shops, and they're quick to step in and tell the owners to take it inside.

"I don't want their money. I don't want to cite them. But we're going to be enforcing" the code, said planning and development director Michael Delk. "If we ever do stop enforcing it, you'll find everything piled out on the sidewalks. There will be no limit."

Soon after Surf Style's displays debuted, other beach businesses complained that their presence demonstrated a lack of consistency by code enforcement officers. So officers told the megastore's owners eight times to move the merchandise; this month, the conflict headed to the City Council.

The debate quickly devolved into a spate of finger-pointing and bureaucratic minutiae, with Surf Style leaders questioning the difference between their banned display, which is beside the store's front doors beneath a shallow overhang, and the allowed display in an outdoor breezeway at the nearby Barefoot Beach House.

The displays in the open-air breezeway, Delk replied, are allowed because the breezeway has side walls and a roof.

The details are what make this issue so tough to regulate, city leaders say. City code allows outdoor merchandise displays at places like car lots and garden centers. Council members say they'd like to extend that to allow displays that look attractive.

"But we can't regulate taste," council member Paul Gibson said.

Hibbard added, "It's like pornography: you know it when you see it. When you see a really bad outdoor display, you say, 'Eww, yuck.' "

• • •

Two years ago, the Complete Angler, a north Clearwater bait and tackle shop, was fined for a painted mural of swordfish and snook on an outside wall. The shop called it art. The city called it illegal advertising.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, shop owner Herb Quintero won a $55,000 settlement from the city in federal court. Critics painted city officials as schoolmarmish at best, tyrannical at worst, and city leaders asked to review the rules to avoid another embarrassment.

It wasn't the first or last time the city's rules on appearance led to a backlash: Mike Riordon, a bike shop owner banned from displaying rental bikes on the Pinellas Trail, joined Quintero in campaigning for city office last year on a platform of frustration with the rules.

Whether the Surf Style dispute could reach that level remains to be seen. The store plans to appeal the code ruling to the city's Community Development Board. Delk, the city's planning director, said staffers "would take a pretty aggressive approach" to defend their ruling, because losing "would undermine our ability to control outdoor displays over most of the beach."

This past week, the City Council again defended banning sidewalk displays as a matter of public right.

"Every decision we make has precedent-setting value, which could potentially create a scenario where we have distasteful outdoor displays throughout the city," Gibson said. "That's not the kind of community we want to live in."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Stores' outdoor displays pose a dilemma for Clearwater 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 12:22pm]

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