Clearwater has a long history of strictly limiting business signs, even fighting years-long battles in court to defend its right to do so. The public generally has supported those efforts and certainly has applauded the resulting improvement in the city's visual landscape.
But some people believe the city went way too far when it attacked Herb Quintero's fish.
Quintero operates a bait and tackle shop, the Complete Angler, on Fort Harrison Avenue just north of downtown Clearwater. He bought a previously rundown building and fixed it up. Then he had an artist paint colorful renderings of six local game fish on the exterior walls of his building. The city swooped in and declared that the fish paintings were an illegal sign. Bait, tackle … fish. Get it?
Quintero had accumulated $700 in fines before he decided he had to cover the fish — with a big banner citing the First Amendment and implying that the city had violated his right to free speech.
Outraged people contacted the city and this newspaper. Some said the fish are art, not signs. Some were angry that the city would come down on a businessman working so hard to succeed in this economy. Some supported Quintero because his building looks good beside the dilapidated structures along N Fort Harrison Avenue, which is plagued by prostitution and other illegal activity.
It's not the first time the city has disagreed with a business owner about "art" on a building. A few years ago an Egyptian-themed restaurant opened in an existing building on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. An artist spent weeks toiling to create hieroglyphics in a repeating pattern over the entire front wall of the building. The finished product was eye-catching and appealing. It was also illegal, the city said. The restaurant owner appealed and won the case, but in a narrow ruling that applied only to that property.
The city's sign code forbids murals on businesses if the mural relates to whatever the business is selling. Clearly, the relationship doesn't have to be too close, as the Egyptian restaurant case illustrates.
Buffeted by the blow-back from the Complete Angler case, the city has defended its enforcement of the no-mural rule. City officials say they can't exempt the fish on Quintero's building because they must be consistent. What would happen if, for example, someone painted an offensive mural on a building and the city tried to enforce the code? That would be trying to dictate the content of the murals, and that would run afoul of the First Amendment, they say.
It is important to note that in neither the fish case nor the hieroglyphics case did the artists paint words to lure in customers. No "Come on in! We've got fish!" No "Get Your Egypt T-shirt Here!"
Just the pictures were enough to violate the code. So it would seem that the only legal mural would be one that could not be connected to the business in any way. But even that can be tricky. In Quintero's case, would a water scene minus fish violate the code? After all, fish live in water and people try to catch fish by purchasing bait and tackle in stores like Quintero's. Or, what if the artist had painted a Clearwater scene? Clearwater contains the word "water" and is known as a place where people come to catch fish, by using bait and tackle of course.
There are a few existing murals in Clearwater that presumably are legal, but in a couple of those cases, correlations can be drawn between the art and what's inside. There is an artsy Clearwater scene painted on a shopping center that houses art galleries. Art on a building that sells art. Hmm. There is a mural of emergency responders, including firefighters, on the city's fire administration building downtown.
If this mural thing is so complicated to manage, how is it that the town of Lake Placid, located southeast of the Tampa Bay area in Highland County, managed to put itself on the map with them? The tiny community had a business district that was caving in — literally — until someone got the idea to use the dilapidated buildings as the canvas for big works of art.
Mural artists have painted elaborate historical scenes, landscapes and pictures of Lake Placid people and wildlife on the walls of 42 buildings since the project started in the mid-1990s. (To see images of the murals, go to http://www.htn.net/lplacid/murals/murals.htm.) Even the trash receptacles have been transformed by murals.
Lake Placid, population 2,000, now is known as the "Town of Murals," and tourists come from far and wide to see the beautiful paintings. A Mural Society raises money and contracts with the artists. Commercial property owners clamor for the opportunity to have a mural painted on their buildings — there are more requests than there is money. The mural project is credited with creating a thriving climate for commerce downtown.
Could Clearwater do that? Sure it could, but not with its current sign ordinance.
There is a difference between art and a business sign. A sign code that doesn't allow officials to distinguish between the two needs to be fixed.
Diane Steinle's e-mail address is email@example.com. To write a letter for publication, go to tampabay.com/letters.