Largo merchants are asking city commissioners to grant them use of new signs and eye-catching devices such as balloons to attract more customers. Everyone is sympathetic to the struggles of merchants in this recession, and city officials may be able to find some temporary measures that would help. However, they must guard against the long-term deleterious effects that could result if they relax the city sign ordinance.
Largo approved a new sign code in 2007 for reasons that remain valid today. Thousands of signs of all types made the city look junky to visitors and residents, and were a dangerous distraction for drivers. The city's inadequate sign laws, combined with patchy enforcement, had created inequities and had encouraged business owners to throw up even more signs, flags, banners and streamers to try to compete against each other.
The new sign ordinance, developed after many hours of city staff work, consultations with property owners and several public hearings, put a stop to all that. The new standards are tough but fair because they require everyone to play by the same rules. The city allows property owners to have a primary business sign that is adequate without being oversized or garish. The code bans flashing and fluttering devices designed for one purpose: to draw passing motorists' eyes away from the road.
Business owners were given seven more years to recoup their investment in their existing signs. At the end of the seven years, all signs must meet the code or be taken down.
Because that amortization period is still in effect and many of the nonconforming signs are still up, Largo residents haven't yet seen the full benefit of the new code. Yet more than 75 business owners reportedly have signed a petition calling for a relaxation of the ordinance, saying they need more ways to advertise their businesses. They want additional street-side signs and the ability to use advertising gimmicks such as balloons and banners when they have sales or grand openings.
It is a fallacy that people can't find businesses unless they are marked by multiple signs or flashing or fluttering devices. If that were true, no business in a place like Sanibel Island, which has one of the toughest sign codes in the state, would survive. People in Clearwater seem to have no trouble finding the McDonald's, the drugstore or the gas station even though that city required all business owners to substantially reduce the number and size of their signs years ago. The improvement in the appearance of Clearwater's commercial corridors has been noteworthy.
Some may wonder what would be the harm in allowing businesses to use special signs or devices during sales. But what constitutes a sale? How would the city determine that it was a real sale? Some businesses might choose to have a sale every day or every week, essentially making their temporary sale signage permanent.
Many communities with tough sign ordinances allow a special banner or sign when a business has its grand opening. However, some businesses then put on multiple "grand openings," so those communities often require a new business to get a special permit that allows only one grand opening and requires the signage to be removed by a specific date. Largo could do the same.
However, each special circumstance that Largo inserts in its ordinance to help businesses through the recession will complicate the job of code enforcement for city staff. That's important, because Largo, like other area cities, is having to cut staff and programs to balance its budget.
Another complication would arise when the city decided to cancel any temporary provisions it had granted to property owners because of the recession. Businesses likely would lobby hard to have the temporary provisions made permanent. The two sides might also disagree about when the recession was really over.
The city hopes to meet with business owners next month to discuss the petition. While city commissioners may wish to be helpful, they should keep in mind that it is the recession, not the city's sign ordinance, that has made today's business environment difficult. And it is the end of the recession, not signs or banners, that will fix the problem.