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Sign code endorsed by Marquis

Pinellas County's controversial sign code will be halfway home next week if county commissioners accept the recommendations of County Administrator Fred Marquis.

In a work session on the countywide sign code, Marquis told commissioners they should show leadership among local officials by passing the code for the unincorporated area. A vote is scheduled next Tuesday.

"This is a much better sign code than the one in place today," Marquis said. "One of the things that you could do Tuesday is signal very strongly to the rest of the communities that you are serious about this."

The Pinellas County Council of Mayors drafted the sign code last year at the urging of county commissioners, who said it would be fruitless to revamp sign rules in the unincorporated area while municipalities had vastly different codes themselves.

The mayors council sent the model code to the County Commission in June, hoping it would be adopted as it was. Then, each of the county's 24 municipalities _ and the county _ would have to amend its own sign code to be consistent with the new ordinance.

But commissioners instead passed a watered-down version of the countywide model ordinance, complete with a provision that the countywide law would be repealed if cities or towns representing 2 percent or more of the county's land area failed to adopt it themselves.

Meanwhile, commissioners postponed until next week any action on signs for the unincorporated area, to the chagrin of community activists who say the county's code needs to be made more restrictive.

For their part, commissioners say it is unfair that municipal leaders and community activists have placed so much blame on them for the sign code's apparent inertia.

In addition, they say city and town leaders have been disingenuous in their claims that the municipal codes are by and large more restrictive than the model ordinance. Marquis presented commissioners with a study that shows almost every city or town still needs to pass amendments before they comply with the model ordinance.

"They have been beating us to death with this thing," Commissioner John Chesnut said Tuesday.

Both St. Petersburg and North Redington Beach amended their sign codes last week to eliminate any conflicts with the countywide code. If county commissioners pass the code, more than half of the county's land area would be covered by the model code, said David Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council.

Commissioners seemed supportive when Marquis said the best course would be to adopt the code for unincorporated Pinellas while allowing the municipalities until July to amend their codes. The measure was scheduled to expire by March if the municipalities failed to act by then.

William Jonson, president of Citizens for a Better Clearwater and a strong advocate of the model code, said he was pleased by the work session Tuesday.

"I think this is moving along in the right direction," Jonson said. "This is clearly the right direction."