Just as the Sarasota Planning Board prepared to discuss revisions to the city’s signs policy — a recent source of controversy — the item was pulled from the group’s Jan. 14 agenda, because the city had yet to address another wrinkle it had not before considered — banners.
City Attorney Robert Fournier learned of a potential oversight in the regulations from a familiar source for such concerns: Michael Barfield, a legal consultant whose provocative signs brought the topic to the city’s attention in November. According to Fournier, Barfield originally levied a barrage of potential problems with the city’s sign regulations because he took issue with anti-panhandling signs the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association posted.
Since then, the City Attorney’s office has been working on amending the zoning code to expand the current definition of banned signs in the public right of way — currently, only signs that are promotional qualify. The process has been trickier than it might appear on the surface, with Barfield’s complaints about the city’s light pole banner policy triggering the latest round of revisions.
The problem, Fournier said, is that the administrative process by which banners are approved is not clearly delineated in any ordinance. Without specific language specifying how banners are handled separately, they could fall under the same regulations that prohibit the A-frame signs already banned by the code.
“They do pertain to the signs ordinance, because they are intended to attract attention to particular locations or events,” Fournier said. “The question revolves on how they are exempted out, and what verbiage needs to be in there.”
Fournier said he would have the revised amendments ready for the Feb. 11 Planning Board meeting, at which point the board will make its recommendations to the City Commission. Even commission approval of the revisions is not a guarantee: The original direction from the City Commission came in a 4-1 vote, and two new members have joined the board since then.
Staff clarified that some of the signs in question are already banned: Signs on the streets advertising a business’s daily specials or drawing a customer into a store are supposed to be placed on private property. For downtown visitors who regularly see those signs in front of a business, that fact may come as a surprise. Fournier said the issue was not one of regulation, but of enforcement. He said city code enforcement staff has been forced to prioritize its top issues, and that signs haven’t cracked that list.
“They will admit that section perhaps isn’t being enforced as intensely as it could be because they are short of personnel to do it and focusing on other types of violations,” Fournier said. “There might be some in the right of way, and they might technically be in violation, but they are being taken in at night.”
Tim Litchet, who oversees the city’s code compliance department, confirmed that current staffing levels mean certain issues, such as abandoned foreclosed properties, are getting more attention than others. Still, if the City Commission communicates to staff that removing signs from the right of way is a top priority, staff can take a closer look at businesses downtown and elsewhere.
“We’re waiting a little more for the discussion to come forward from the commission,” Litchet said. “Our focus right now is mostly residential — foreclosed properties that have been abandoned.”
Ron Soto, president of the Downtown Sarasota Merchants Alliance, has been at the center of the dispute with Barfield and ensuing sign controversy. After reading through the initial draft of the ordinance, Soto didn’t see any major changes that should cause issue. Even if businesses were forced to move existing signs, Soto said, the city would just be enforcing rules that have long been on the books.
“They’re all illegal right now,” Soto said. “There’s already a thing saying you can’t put them out there.”
As for the anti-panhandling signs that sparked the controversy, Soto said he didn’t expect them to disappear from the downtown landscape even if the new regulations are approved — although he is working on revising them to use friendlier language.
“They’re in some windows now,” Soto said. “Believe it or not, a lot of them are on private property. I don’t think that’ll change.”