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Largo should not flutter in stance on banner ban

A U.S. 19 car dealership that annexed into the city of Largo recently isn't so happy with one feature of its adopted city.

The Largo sign code prevents businesses from flying banners except when they are having their grand openings. And Walker Ford, the dealership that now falls inside the city limits, has flown banners from parking lot light poles for years.

The city of Largo told the dealership to take down the 6-foot-long banners, which are white and display the Ford emblem and the words "WALKER" and "FORD" in red letters. The dealership continued to fly them, but moved them back 15 feet from the highway.

"It's hurt our business," said Frank Walker, vice president of the dealership. "You don't know that this is Walker Ford until you get right up to it."

In response to the complaint, the city staff is reconsidering the banner ban, at least for businesses along U.S. 19.

Let's hope that review is merely a polite formality. There are plenty of good reasons for the city to remain steadfast on the issue of banners.

Largo prohibited banners and pennants in 1989 as part of a new sign code adopted after much controversy. Car dealerships were strongly opposed to a banner prohibition, because most car lots used the fluttering, flapping banners and pennants to attract attention of passing motorists or to supplement the advertising opportunities that standard roadside business signs afforded.

The city stood by the banner ban until 1992, when a recession brought businesses to the city saying they needed the banners to survive. A majority of the Largo City Commission voted to relax the prohibition, but only enough to allow new businesses to fly banners for their grand openings. Two members of the current City Commission, Jean Halvorsen and Mayor Bob Jackson, were among the minority in 1992 that voted against relaxing the ban.

The city staff already recognizes that if it changes the rules on banners for businesses on U.S. 19, it will be faced with the same demands from businesses on other major thoroughfares, including Ulmerton Road and East Bay and West Bay drives. "And before you know it, you've changed it citywide," said Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert.

He's right. And that is perhaps the best reason to stand by the ban. Largo adopted a new sign code in 1989 because it wanted to improve the appearance of the city, which was cluttered with big signs and tattered banners. With the City Commission talking a lot about ways to improve Largo's image, now does not seem the time to backtrack on the sign code.

Many cities that have jurisdiction over portions of U.S. 19 have conceded that the business signs that stand in front of properties along the highway need to be a little larger than those allowed elsewhere to give motorists traveling at highway speeds the opportunity to spot them. If Largo's code does not provide for slightly larger business signs for U.S. 19 businesses, it may want to consider that change for the sake of the traveling public.

But the city is under no obligation to provide additional advertising opportunities for businesses, especially when doing so would be a distraction to motorists and worsen the already cluttered visual landscape of U.S. 19.

If Largo wants the businesses that line its major roadways to look like circus tents, allowing banners and pennants again is a sure-fire way to do it.

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