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Seminole's proposed sign ordinance is a model for other cities

Seminole has crossed every "t" and dotted every "i" in its effort to create a tough and legally defensible draft ordinance that would ban new billboards and reduce the size of many business signs in the city. That thoroughness should give Seminole City Council members the confidence they need to support the ordinance as it comes before them for a preliminary vote Tuesday. And other Pinellas local governments that need to change their sign codes should look to Seminole's effort as a model.

From its first page, the proposal was drafted to navigate the increasingly complex legal and regulatory environment governments face when they try to control signs, particularly billboards. The outdoor advertising industry is aggressively litigious, and the Florida Legislature has not helped matters by continually finding new ways to restrict local governments' right to regulate and remove signs.

Seminole was not cowed by that, but carefully constructed a strong foundation for its effort. In 2004, troubled by the cluttered look and helter-skelter development within its boundaries, Seminole officials hired the University of South Florida and created a committee to assist with the development of architectural standards for buildings. The goal was to make the city more attractive and livable.

An adjunct to that effort was the creation of a new sign code. For that work, the city was smart to hire Shauna Morris, a local attorney who specializes in sign codes and litigation, to guide the writing of the ordinance.

The ordinance council members will consider Tuesday would:

• Ban construction of new billboards anywhere in the city. And if any of the existing billboards — there are only a few in Seminole — are damaged or destroyed in excess of 51 percent of their value, the billboard company cannot rebuild the sign.

• Reduce the amount of window area that can be plastered with signs from the current 100 square feet to 24 square feet.

• Make 100 square feet the maximum size of signs anywhere in the city, including the commercial general zoning district, where signs now can be 150 square feet.

• Reduce the allowed height of on-premises business signs from 25 feet to 20 feet in general commercial and industrial districts.

• Prohibit digital billboards, mobile billboards, portable signs, sandwich board signs, bus shelter signs, flashing or twirling signs, signs in waterways, and wall-wrap signs, all of which contribute to clutter and driver distractions.

If the council passes the ordinance, owners of signs that don't comply with the new code will have seven years to bring them into compliance. That so-called "amortization period" also would apply to the five to seven billboards in the city, but because of special protections for billboards that legislators built into state law, the city still would have to compensate billboard owners for the value of their signs to get them removed.

While the Seminole draft ordinance bans digital or electronic billboards, it does not contain such a ban for the on-premises signs that stand in front of businesses — a gap officials may want to reconsider. On-premise electronic or LED signs that feature constantly flipping advertisements are the coming thing in the sign industry and are expected to proliferate as costs come down in future years. Seminole council members should visualize the potential result: commercial streets lined with the equivalent of large-screen color televisions, each with constantly changing commercial messages designed to catch drivers' attention. That image hardly seems in step with Seminole's admirable goal of creating a lovelier city with safer roads.

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Seminole's proposed sign ordinance is a model for other cities 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 3:31am]
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