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City trying to avoid flap over banners

A Brooksville ordinance prohibits them in most circumstances. But business owners say the best solution is to look the other way.

Brooksville doesn't look like a town that has a law regulating banners.

On its busiest commercial strip _ U.S. 41 just south of downtown _ banners are only slightly less common than conventional signs.

Ana's Amoco, near the intersection of U.S. 98, displays four banners and a temporary canopy, which also violates city code. Just to the south, a video store advertises a five-night rental deal with a banner. Within the surrounding few hundred yards, banners tout cigarettes, car washes, snow cones and a pool center.

And banners aren't limited to small businesses or to this part of the city. Chain businesses using them include the Goodyear Auto Service Centers, a KFC restaurant and Scotty's hardware.

Despite appearances, city officials say, banners are not allowed unless they advertise special events, in which case they may be displayed for no more than 30 days.

But the law is almost unenforceable because of its vague language and because it doesn't provide for any significant punishment. The city had a chance to change the law, but, after months of discussion, did not. Council members also probably could insist that the law be interpreted and enforced more stringently, said council member Joe Johnston III, who has been the most firm advocate of banning banners.

"But I don't think it's a priority with most of the other council members," Johnston said.

That's probably true, said Mayor Mary Staib.

"We have the Jerome Brown (Community) Center, the (new) sewer plant. These are the major concerns with us and this is where we had to concentrate our attentions," Staib said last week.

Banners, she said, "are not paramount in our thinking right now."

Politics is another reason the council takes this approach, said Bob Boyd, owner of Verona House Bed and Breakfast on S Main Street and a member of the committee that worked to write a new law two years ago. Few people object to the presence of banners. When the council tried to enforce the existing law a couple of years ago, business owners complained loudly.

"Any time they try to enforce it, you're going to step on somebody's toes," Boyd said.

The banner issue in Brooksville is not new. Nor is the city's failure to enforce the regulations. The law was passed as part of a sign ordinance in 1991. The ordinance was, and for the most part remains, tougher than the county's law.

In the county's law _ revised by the County Commission a year ago _ each business is allowed to display one banner. A business also may display streamers for special sales or promotions.

The city's law is based on the idea that, though banners may help attract people in the short run, they ultimately hurt the business that displays them as well as surrounding enterprises. As more and more banners compete for attention, they create enough clutter that shoppers begin avoiding the area altogether, the reasoning goes.

The law forbids any streamers. The cloth-covered carports that have become increasingly common also are forbidden under a code that bans the permanent use of temporary structures, said City Manager Richard Anderson. Banners are supposed to be attached to an exterior wall and may occupy only 10 percent of the area of that wall.

The banners are allowed only to advertise special events, which the law does not define. It does, however, clearly stipulate that the banners "shall in no instance remain in place for more than 30 days."

But by late 1997, the city was in essentially the same situation it is now: Businesses were disregarding the law with impunity. When, at that time, Anderson ordered a code-enforcement officer to crack down on the displays, business owners filled the council chambers to object.

Their opinion was the same one now expressed by Adrian and Ana Gutierrez, owner of Ana's Amoco: It is hard enough to get a business to succeed in Brooksville with banners. Without them, it would be nearly impossible.

"It's been tough," Ana Gutierrez said. "Without these banners, we'd be in trouble."

The city appointed a community group in late 1997 to research and discuss the matter and later directed Anderson to incorporate the group's findings into a proposed amendment to the law. He ultimately recommended requiring businesses to get city permits for 30 or 60 days to fly banners for special events.

The City Council scrapped the whole thing and the city was back to having a vague law with limited enforcement capacity. Brooksville employs one code enforcement officer, Linda Sidor.

She does try to enforce the code, she said. Different businesses, however, have different impressions of exactly what the city requires.

Lorri Norris, a saleswoman at Tony Auto Sales on U.S. 41, said the city warned the business about flying banners.

"We didn't want to push it. We complied," she said.

Adrian Gutierrez said he was told that his banners were allowed, and that he could use his temporary canopy if he took it in every night.

"They didn't say anything about the banners. They said there was nothing wrong with having the banners," he said.

No, Sidor said, that's not what she tells business owners.

"The (banners) keep going up. We keep notifying them. They come down for a while and then they go up again," she said.

Police Chief Ed Tincher, who supervises Sidor, said that it is difficult for the city to do anything more than notify the business owners.

The city ultimately could fine them after a hearing in Hernando County Court. But the process is cumbersome and the city generally drops any action if the business owner complies, even temporarily, with the request to take down the banner.

"If they correct it, nothing happens," Tincher said.

Whether that is a bad thing depends on whom you ask.

Adrian Gutierrez, who moved to Brooksville from Miami about seven months ago to buy the business, said businesses do not need regulations to keep their enterprises neat. It's just good business.

"I don't want it to look like a junkyard," he said. "I spend $90 to $100 on a banner to make it look professional."

"I have no problem with the use of these banners on a temporary basis," said Boyd, the bed and breakfast owner. "But as a substitute for a temporary sign, I don't agree with that. It's visual clutter."