Port St. Joe commissioners and their constituents keep thinking they are done with a sign ordinance only to be pulled back in.
Another regular bi-monthly meeting Tuesday was marked by a lengthy and spirited debate about the sign ordinance and its impacts.
And, as has been the case the past few months, commissioners were sharply divided over moving forward, with another 3-2 vote, another vote with Commissioner Rex Buzzett and Mayor Mel Magidson in the minority, to again amend a sign ordinance the city has wrestled with for years.
“I would like to see a 5-0 vote for a change,” remarked Commissioner William Thursbay at one juncture.
His request was met a few minutes later when commissioners unanimously agreed on eliminating fees for recreational youth athletic leagues.
The latest uproar on the sign ordinance was spurred by registered letters delivered to business and property owners with signs deemed out of compliance under an amended sign ordinance just passed last month.
That amending essentially pushed back the clock on a five-year window for coming into compliance with the original sign ordinance passed five years ago.
All out of compliance signs were given five years, or until Oct. 1, 2013, to come into compliance on height, square footage and other yardsticks.
When commissioners again took up the ordinance at the request of Thursbay late last year, the deadline was moved back to June 1, 2014.
In the past couple of weeks city staff sent out registered letters to those with signs that were out of compliance, noting the deadline.
Commissioner Bo Patterson said Tuesday that the ordinance as “unfair.”
He said businesses long established were being told their sign was out of compliance and the process to appeal for a variance or special exemption to the sign ordinance, at a cost of $300, was unfair.
“I just don’t think it is right,” Patterson said. “Why can’t we grandfather these signs in? We don’t want to punish the business people who employ people and pay city taxes.”
He motioned to once again amend the sign ordinance to grandfather in signs in existence when the ordinance was approved last month and to eliminate any mandates concerning the five-foot right of way on state roads 71 and U.S. 98.
Ultimately the motion passed 3-2.
Buzzett offered some history that brought commissioners to Tuesday, noting that a committee of downtown business owners crafted the original sign ordinance. The goal was to keep the tourist corridor and business district attractive, clean and eliminate clutter.
Buzzett also questioned the fairness of exempting some businesses when a host of businesses had undertaken the expense to bring their signage into compliance.
What do commissioners say to those business owners, wondered?
“Here we are again,” Buzzett said. “You may not agree with it, but I can give you a list of people who agree with it and came into compliance with it.”
Of particular contention has been McDonald’s. The store has an out-of-compliance sign and the current owners have been before commissioners seeking a reprieve.
Buzzett and Mayor Mel Magidson noted that the sign was part of an agreement between the city and McDonald’s corporate and the current owner’s beef is with his franchiser, not the city.
“I look at these small independent folks who complied but you are going to allow this multi-million corporation to leave their sign up,” Buzzett said. “You want to talk about fairness.”
Commissioner Phil McCroan said, “It is not just McDonald’s.”
Matt Scoggins of Five Star said if he had to bring down his sign he would have to close up shop and the city would be out the $1 million annual financial impact from his business.
Phil Earley said it was getting increasingly difficult to do business in the city due to regulation.
“My concern is what is coming next,” Earley said. “I remember when it was government for the people. We have gone past that. I’ve tried to abide by what the city wants but it is getting hard to do.”
Magidson noted repeatedly that the ordinance provided an appeals process, to the Planning Development Review Board and then the City Commission.
There is a cost, to offset the expense of the appeal process, but a process had been provided for seeking a variance.
The discussion turned testy several times – on three occasions Magidon gaveled for order – and spilled into philosophical debates on governing.
Buzzett said commissioners were setting a bad precedent by repeatedly addressing less major issues at the expense of the larger picture.
“I think we’ve been doing that a lot lately,” he said, “and we should be looking at the city as a whole and working to bring people together.”
Thursbay said he believed he was elected because citizens were not satisfied with “the way things had been done” and he was obligated to bring their issues forward.
Patterson noted that the Tuesday meetings were the only times commissioners could discuss issues and at one point challenged the rest of the board to get out in the community and find out what is going on instead of only paying attention every other Tuesday.
Buzzett and Magidson both took exception.
“You know better than that,” Magidson said.