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CITY HAS CHANCE TO CRAFT WORKABLE SIGN LIMITS

Clearwater has a history of successfully ridding the city of the ugly clutter created by too many business signs. Yet the outcomes of a couple of recent lawsuits have indicated the city might be tending toward over-regulation, making judgments about signage that reasonable people would not make. Finding the right balance between enough regulation but not too much will be the challenge as the City Council considers a request from the business community to loosen its ban on sandwich board signs.

The city took a small step in that direction last year when it decided that merchants on Clearwater Beach and downtown's Cleveland Street could use the small A-frame signs on the sidewalks in front of their businesses. The city adopted some reasonable rules, such as limiting the size of the sandwich boards, ensuring they would not block the sidewalk and banning advertising for other businesses or products from the signs.

However, now a committee of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce has asked the city to relax the ban even more so merchants anywhere in the city can use sandwich board signs.

Roger Larson, a lawyer chairing the committee, said merchants need to tell passing pedestrians what is inside their stores and whether there is a special sale or event under way.

"This is not a here-I-am sign," Larson said. "This is a 'You're already here, let me tell you a little about myself' sign."

Larson's committee represents business interests but has decided it would rather work with, rather than against, the city on issues such as signage that concern the business community. Rather than attacking the entire sign code, the committee chose to focus on the sandwich board issue and met with members of the city planning department before Larson made his pitch to the City Council on Monday. The issue might be discussed again at tonight's council meeting.

The chamber committee and the planning staff have a friendly disagreement. Larsen's group wants sandwich boards allowed throughout the city, contending the signs would be good for business and therefore good for Clearwater. The planners oppose the idea because of the potential for clutter, blocked sidewalks, enforcement problems and liability.

Imagine the streets of Clearwater lined by sandwich board signs and it is easy to see why city officials might be opposed. But that isn't what the chamber group has in mind. According to Larson, they want the signs only on private property, on interior sidewalks right next to buildings, not out in the public right of way beside the street.

That's a crucial difference. Sandwich board signs next to the street would be a dangerous distraction and ugly to boot. Sandwich boards next to a building entrance would be merely informational for people walking by.

The city could require that the sign stand within a certain number of feet of a store's doorway, thereby heading off the temptation for a merchant to inch the sign closer to the street. With additional limitations on the size of the signs and the types of businesses that could use them, the city could construct a sandwich board ordinance that would be workable - even in a city that has worked so hard to clean up sign clutter.

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