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City, businesses search for downtown sign compromise

For some, a conversation about businesses placing signs in the public right-of-way has become an opportunity to stand up to a frequent foil of the city.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. June 18, 2015
Louise Kennedy Converse, owner of Artisan Cheese Co., is hopeful the city will establish new regulations allowing for the use of A-frame signs like the one outside her store.
Louise Kennedy Converse, owner of Artisan Cheese Co., is hopeful the city will establish new regulations allowing for the use of A-frame signs like the one outside her store.
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When Louise Kennedy Converse opened the Artisan Cheese Co. on Main Street in October 2011, downtown was a little less crowded than it is today.

Since then, new projects have sprouted up, including a Main Street streetscape project in 2013 and the groundbreaking of the 18-story Jewel condominium tower across the street. In just four years, the landscape of the downtown Converse moved into has been radically changed.

She’s still happy about her location downtown, but as things have evolved, drawing attention to her store has become a problem she didn’t necessarily anticipate. After the installation of new palm trees obscured the view of the storefront, Converse’s husband, Parker Convers II, put together an A-frame sign, placing it on the sidewalk to let passersby know that the cheese shop existed.

“I love my business, I love the location, I believe in downtown,” Louise Kennedy Converse said. “I need people to know we're here.”

Taken together with a handful of other factors — the dark windows that obscure the view of the inside of the store, the lack of a wayfinding system downtown — Converse said the A-frame sign has been an essential tool for her business. Several downtown merchants have also emphasized the importance of those signs, and it’s a point city officials have indicated they’re sympathetic toward.

Although everyone seems to be on the same page, one thing isn’t: the existing city sign regulations. A dispute between Florida ACLU Vice President Michael Barfield and downtown merchants stemming from homelessness issues called attention to the fact that the various commercial signs lining Main Street are, technically, illegal, and have been for some time.

Per the city code, all private signage is not allowed in the public right of way. The City Commission approved stronger regulations on signage in April, but that applied to non-commercial messages; commercial messages were already restricted by city ordinance.

With many merchants testifying to the value of these signs and various experts advocating for their value, the issue would normally be resolved relatively quickly. But, after Barfield posted signs attacking downtown businesses to highlight his issue with anti-panhandling signs, the city has been searching for a way to specifically allow commercial signage without stepping on the First Amendment rights of other residents.

At Monday’s City Commission meeting, the board directed staff to continue to develop new regulations on signage that would allow businesses to post them in the right of way. For merchants such as Converse or Doug Gourley, owner of As Good As It Gets on Palm Avenue, the issue seems like it should be a simple one: Nobody is complaining about the signs, and it’s good for business.

“We want to be able to communicate with our customers,” Gourley said. “We don't use neon signs. There's no video text going up on Palm Avenue or Main Street or Orange Avenue or First Street.”

For the city, it’s not as simple.

Public Enemy No. 1

Those who spoke at Monday’s meeting didn’t shy away from calling out Barfield as the sole variable complicating the writing of new regulations.

“There's only one person we have to worry about,” Commissioner Susan Chapman said. “And that's the real issue, and you know it will be tested.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier said Barfield has been messaging him almost daily, complaining that the city wasn’t enforcing its sign ordinance properly. Fournier said that was indicative of a staffing issue, and that code compliance employees weren’t prioritizing this particular issue.

That hasn’t satisfied Barfield, who has floated the possibility of taking legal action against the city if the existing sign regulations continue to be ignored. The issue, he says, is that the city chooses not to be as lax when it comes to other laws — such as those preventing individuals from panhandling.

Fournier acknowledged that Barfield had a First Amendment right to post his inflammatory signs before the new regulations were passed. Likewise, the city has to be respectful of those rights as they look at refining the rules, preventing them from judging the signs based on their content.

Instead, Fournier said, the regulations would have to be based on “time, place and manner.” The rules could state signs can only be on the street during certain hours, can only be a certain size and form, can only be placed in certain locations. Although that would be more narrowly tailored, it would still allow private citizens such as Barfield to post complying signs with their own messages.

“You can't say who gets to put them out and what message you can put on them,” Fournier said. “Ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of the time, it's going to be the merchants.”

The commission unanimously voted to direct staff to continue work on developing regulations along those lines. Converse, who said she was unfamiliar with Barfield before Monday’s meeting, applauded the city for its willingness to work cooperatively with businesses.

As the city resumes the search for a solution to its sign issues, Gourley and several other merchants urged the city not to be scared off by the threat of further problems with one individual.

“I think that's a risk we have to run,” Gourley said. “We've been running from this guy for way too long, and I think it's time we took a stand.”

Adjusting the Frames

One of the potential new regulations floated by City Attorney Robert Fournier was a stipulation that all signs posted on the street would have to be A-frame signs.

Although that would help make it likelier that only merchants are posting signs, it also created its own problem.

Several downtown stores, such as Wet Noses, forego the traditional A-frame sign to draw attention to their businesses.
Several downtown stores, such as Wet Noses, forego the traditional A-frame sign to draw attention to their businesses.

Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and a member of the Downtown Improvement District board, pointed out that businesses such as the pet store Wet Noses have their own signs that wouldn’t meet that regulation.

Soto said those signs, in particular, help make the city more appealing for visitors, echoing a point raised by walkability expert Jeff Speck on his visit to Sarasota.

“He sat there and said these signs are good to have in downtown,” Soto said. “It gives us an interesting downtown.”

Fournier said he would take that testimony into account and attempt to keep the initial draft of sign regulations simple. 


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