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More sign restrictions are approved

Within seven years, signs will be smaller and shorter throughout much of Pinellas County.

The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday became the second large government on the peninsula this month to approve a restrictive sign code. Ultimately the code may lead to a standard set of laws regulating the size, height and placement of signs and billboards throughout Pinellas.

With the unanimous vote of county commissioners, more than half of the county now is covered by the ordinance, drafted last year by the Pinellas County Council of Mayors. The St. Petersburg City Council approved the ordinance earlier this month, as did town officials in North Redington Beach.

Signs and billboards that do not conform to the more restrictive code will be allowed to remain in place for seven years.

The mayors council had hoped the model sign code would be enforced in all 24 municipalities and the unincorporated area. But the proposed countywide ordinance prompted an enormous squabble among officials shortly after the mayors presented it to the County Commission in June.

The County Commission approved a watered-down version of the ordinance in September. But to become effective countywide, the model code would have to be approved by almost all of the county's 24 municipalities, whose own codes are slightly more permissive, County Administrator Fred Marquis has said.

Leaders from several of the cities and towns lambasted county commissioners for weakening provisions of the model code after all the area's mayors reached a consensus.

In return, county commissioners blasted mayors and commissioners for claiming their own ordinances were more restrictive than the model code, when, in fact, some of the city codes had provisions that were less restrictive.

Still, Marquis and David Healey, who is director of the Pinellas Planning Council, which coordinates county land-use planning, said the county could play a leadership role by approving the measure for the unincorporated area.

Many county residents agreed. About 50 people attended Tuesday night's commission meeting to support the ordinance, most of them sporting lapel stickers urging officials to stop "visual pollution."

William Jonson, president of the Citizens for a Better Clearwater, said the ordinance would not hurt businesses. "The proposal before you tonight is pro-business," he said. "Signs will still be allowed, but now businesses will be able to compete on an even playing field."

But Paul Taylor, a Clearwater man who has been in the sign business for 21 years, said commissioners could eliminate visual clutter simply by enforcing the ordinance they already have. "Don't keep penalizing legal businesses for the failure of the county to enforce present laws," he said.