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County's blight fight targets jungle of signs

Grandfathering lets existing businesses keep their signs. But the blight, some say, calls for immediate action.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

They call it the "Florida Nature Coast" but the first glimpse of Pasco County coming up U.S. 19 from Tarpon Springs might shame Mother Nature.

There's the black, white and red sign for an insurance agency atop a pole. Then the eye locks on a homemade-looking sign for a Spanish Pentecostal church, then a triple decker pole sign hawking T-shirts and sportswear.

A quick glance to the north shows a big sign boasting "Automotive Repair," in front of the seven-decker sign for a grocery, discount store, and sign company, among others.

They're just the edge of a dense jungle of business signs that stretches most of the next 18 miles of U.S. 19 through Pasco.

To discourage such growth from blighting the soon-to-develop green fields of central Pasco, county officials are pursuing tough new sign rules, banning pole and pylon signs in favor of low monument signs.

Also set to disappear are whole categories of eye-catching but less permanent signs: balloons, portable trailers, banners, pennants and beacon lights.

But the ordinance will do little to sort out the eyeball-aching clutter of U.S. 19.

The county calls it grandfathering: Established businesses can keep their old signs. Only if businesses lie vacant between owners or replace substantially damaged signs will they have to kowtow to the smaller-is-better rules.

* * *

Grandfathering sticks in the craw of Scenic Pasco. That's the group that has waged war against bus bench advertising, billboards and cell phone towers. As part of the same campaign, its members have led the push for smaller signs.

Giving a pass to existing businesses not only delays roadside beautification but discriminates against newcomers, Scenic Pasco's Kathryn Starkey said. Their relatively small monument signs would wallow in the shadows of existing 40-foot pole signs.

Starkey's model is Pinellas County, which approved stricter sign laws in 1992 but gave existing businesses seven years to comply. Clearwater started even earlier, enforcing sign rules for existing businesses in 1992, seven years after passage of the law in 1985.

"To wait a generation or two is just not fair to the new businesses coming in," Starkey said of Pasco's approach to cleaning up U.S. 19. "If you've got seven years, you know ahead of time so you can plan for it."

Pinellas has successfully, if laboriously, enforced its ordinance in the 21/2 years since the seven-year grace period expired.

Armed with measuring rods, tape measures and binoculars, Pinellas County code enforcement officers first hit businesses on designated "scenic corridors,' then moved on to smaller commercial streets.

"It's literally a matter of measuring the heights of free-standing signs and surface areas of signs on buildings," said Will Davis, Pinellas' environmental management director.

In some cases the results have been dramatic, Starkey said, pointing to the remodeled roadside of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater. Davis estimates the county has regulated thousands of overly obtrusive business signs out of existence.

It's true that lawsuits have hounded the Pinellas ordinance. But almost all concerned billboards, an issue Pasco needn't worry about since it dealt with them in a separate 1999 ordinance.

* * *

Grandfathering was a compromise pushed by Pasco Administrator John Gallagher, who worries that to order thousands of businesses already here to uproot their signs was to invite lawsuits.

The most pressing problem is to ensure that future developers, especially those with plans to commercialize the State Road 54 corridor from Trinity to Zephyrhills, operate under strict aesthetic guidelines.

"The best way to get a sign ordinance passed without a great big fight and delay is to go ahead and deal with signs for new development," Gallagher said last week.

But in one sense, Pasco's ordinance is actually stricter than that in the county to the south: Pinellas still allows pole signs, albeit in shrunken form.

Clearly, businesses on U.S. 19 are in little mood for what they view as expensive new government rules.

Tom Castriota, owner of Castriota Chevrolet Inc. on U.S. 19 in Hudson, admits that many of the signs he sees are ugly.

But forcing him to pull down his 30-foot-high General Motors sign in favor of a ground-hugging masonry sign would cost him customers, he said.

Smaller mom-and-pop businesses without his profit margins could barely afford new signs that run thousands of dollars, Castriota said.

"I have to live on my signs being more prevalent," Castriota said. "You're driving 55 mph when you go past me."

Also approaching the new ordinance cautiously is the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce. It has scheduled an Oct. 10 meeting with Gallagher.

Would the chamber support a seven-year plan for old businesses to comply with the sign law?

"Absolutely not. I don't think that would be an equitable thing," executive director Joe Alpine said. "There is a lot of blight out there . . . but you can't go to the far extreme."

But Starkey said seven years is a "reasonable" time for businesses to comply. Otherwise, west Pasco residents are doomed to decades of eyesores.

The sign ordinance could hit county commissioners' desks as early as Sept. 24. Final approval won't come until October at the earliest.

"I don't think grandfathering would clean that up quickly enough," Starkey said.

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