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Largo commission says car dealer can have bigger sign

LARGO — City commissioners narrowly approved a car dealer's request to put up a bigger sign than allowed by Largo rules.

The 4-3 decision last month was a rare reversal of a unanimous planning board vote to turn down the request by Dick Norris Pontiac GMC.

Norris wanted to put up a 226-square-foot sign on his dealership at 18200 U.S. 19 N so it can be more easily seen over the overpass that's being built there. Largo rules limit sign size there to 187.5 square feet. Norris' existing sign is 127 square feet.

The Norris dealership is at the southwest corner of U.S. 19 and Belleair Road, the outer limits of Largo. It's land where the former Orange Blossom Groves was located.

In the past, Norris' sign was easy to see from U.S. 19, but that has changed, Norris' representative, Todd Pressman, argued. Between construction, traffic and the new road configuration, Norris' sign is hard to see from the road. That's a hardship, Pressman said, that merits a "hardship" exception to Largo's sign rules.

"The sole cause of the hardship and special condition … is the new U.S. 19 construction," Pressman said. The changes at that intersection are the "most impacting and devastating" of anywhere else in the city, he said.

Commission members disagreed about the amount of "hardship" Norris would be facing if they did not allow the company to have a sign about 38.5 square feet larger than allowed by city rules.

Robert Murray said signs are not so important now that people have GPS to locate businesses.

"I just don't see the hardship," Murray said.

Jamie Robinson agreed, saying that granting the exception would create a precedent. If the commission does grant an exception, he said, "we might as well throw our sign code out. … I think the (planning) board did a good job figuring this out and I'm going to stick with what they agreed to."

Mayor Pat Gerard said she believed there is a hardship.

"There is a problem here," Gerard said. "You need to be able to see the sign to get off the road. If you don't see it until you start going up the bridge" that doesn't help drivers at all.

Gerard added, "I do think there's a problem there. We need to do something about it. The fact we haven't is a hardship for these guys."

Mayor-elect Woody Brown said he opposed granting the exception, although he, like others, agreed the sign code needs changing because all businesses along U.S. 19 are having the same problem. It's a hardship for all, he said.

"I think there probably is a hardship, (but) it's not unique to your property," Brown told the representatives of the Norris group present at the meeting.

But in the end, Brown joined Gerard, Crozier and Curtis Holmes in a vote to allow Norris to put up the larger sign.

Commission members also directed staff members to consider changing the city's sign rules.

"I just want things to be fair," Brown said. "They should be fair to all businesses" along U.S. 19.

Contact Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes.

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