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Recession isn't an excuse for weakening sign laws

There is no denying these are difficult times for businesses. Fear and mistrust among consumers run high, and people are more inclined than at any other time in recent history to hold onto their money and prepare for the worst.

But some business owners are taking advantage of the current climate to seek special dispensations from local governments. And elected officials are finding it difficult to say no to lobbying for variances, relief from fees and repeal of certain laws that business owners perceive as too tough for these times.

Sign ordinances are a sure target under these circumstances. That was evident in Largo recently when local businesses sought repeal of the city's prohibition against use of banners outside of businesses. They won, using the argument that the banners are necessary to attract customers during these difficult times. Portable signs are the next most likely target there.

In 1985 Clearwater approved a new sign code that is to take effect this October. Business owners were given seven years to recover the investments they made in their old signs, which would be too tall or too big once the ordinance took effect.

Some businesses already have installed smaller signs. The changes have been obvious along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater. Robby's Pancake House has a smaller sign. Don Olson's Firestone took down an unattractive sign and replaced it with a sign that no longer sticks out like a sore thumb. Gulf-to-Bay Plaza at Belcher Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard has new smaller, shorter signs that are far more attractive. There have been other changes up and down both sides of the road.

But a lot of businesses in Clearwater have hung onto their old signs, and now it is some of those businesses that are threatening a lawsuit or lobbying for amendments to the law.

Through the last seven years, Clearwater city commissioners have remained steadfast about the sign code. They spoke often of the improvements the changes would bring in the city's visual environment and about the need to make Clearwater a prettier place for tourists and residents alike.

But is the city's resolve weakening? There has been discussion recently about relaxing a few of the requirements of the new code. Some of those changes will be made to bring the city's code in line with a proposed countywide ordinance, but some merchants would like to see other, more substantial changes and are likely to use the argument that they cannot survive without bigger, taller signs to lure customers to their stores.

That's not only inaccurate _ businesses exist all over this country in communities that have tough sign laws _ but also shortsighted. David Ziege of Indiana, whose letter to the editor appeared on this page Friday, was not the first visitor to write a letter to the newspaper and express dismay about ugliness caused by too many big signs. And he added, "Isn't attracting more visitors a better way to aid the business community than allowing more signs?"

Good point. Elected officials confronted by demands to repeal sign laws might keep it in mind. When a city looks good, more people want to live there. More people want to visit there. They enjoy being there. An improved environment can be a boon for business.

And besides, sign clutter is a form of pollution. It offends the eye and can be a dangerous distraction for motorists. Do we look the other way and let the pollution continue, in a misguided effort to "assist" businesses during hard times? If so, the question is where to draw the line. Do we allow a manufacturing company to pour the hazardous byproducts of production on the ground because recycling or disposing of them cost a lot?

Tough sign laws are perfectly fair as long as they are enforced equitably. If one business is required to have a small sign, and the business next door is allowed a big one, the small one will be hard to see and the owner will have a legitimate case based on loss of business. But if both businesses and all their neighbors have the same requirements, one business' sign is as easy to see as another.

If concessions to hard times must be made, there are alternatives to tinkering with the sign law. For example, if late summer reveals an economy still sputtering, the city might choose to waive any sign permit fees for businesses that must replace their signs to comply with the new standards.

Clearwater has a good sign law and has given merchants plenty of warning of the impending changes. Commissioners should remain resolved to enforce the law come October.