MADEIRA BEACH — A number of illegal signs and sign types not often seen in the city, such as murals, have focused attention on the need to update the city’s sign code.
Community Development Director Linda Portal said at the Feb. 24 commission workshop that changes in the city’s sign environment over the past few years are not reflected in the sign code, which was adopted five years ago. The 15-page ordinance has parts that are outdated and inconsistent, she said, adding, “It needs to be rewritten.” That effort is already underway.
Murals, for example, have been rare in the city but are now becoming more common. There is no regulation of murals, Portal said. If a mural contains words, it is considered a sign. Signs require a permit, but few mural owners have obtained a permit for them, Portal said. Murals can also contain advertising.
Sometimes murals contain words that are considered offensive, she said. That brings up the issue of what is considered to be free speech and protected by a Supreme Court decision in 2015.
“There is a lot of conflict all over town about signs,” Portal said. A lot of new signs put up in John’s Pass Village have no permit requests for them, she said.
Commissioner Doug Andrews said he had read the more than 15 pages of sign code and found it convoluted and inconsistent. “It needs to be simplified,” he said.
Andrews also recognized that there are a lot of illegal signs around town, but said he believes some of the complaints about signs are overblown. Such as, “We don’t want to turn into Las Vegas,” about a restaurant’s plan to put up a lighted sign, that “sounded like it would be the end of the world.”
“We’re a beach town, a tourist town, and we don’t want to be overly restrictive,” Andrews said. The rule could be, “Bring your sign in to us, and if it’s not offensive and fits the character of the area, go with it,” he said.
Commissioner Helen “Happy” Price agreed that the sign code should be simplified and shortened to a lot less than 15 pages.
Price was concerned about the lack of regulation on murals, which came up in the discussion because of the recent painting of a big mural on the new Caddy’s restaurant.
“We just had this big discussion about Caddy’s liquor license and we were so restrictive on them because they were in a residential area,” she said. And yet the mural, which she said was out of character for the area, was allowed.
“I don’t want to see every condo, every business along Madeira Beach putting up what they call a mural, which is really an advertisement,” said Price.
There are a lot of issues with signs, Portal said, and City Attorney Thomas Trask is reviewing the code and will recommend changes as needed.
Short term rental law – violations and fines
Price said she is getting more and more calls from residents complaining about noncompliance with the city’s vacation-rental ordinance. When people get caught violating the law, they get very small fines, she said.
“When people rent a house for $300 a night, and get fined $93, they don’t care,” Price said.
The city needs to put some teeth in the law to help with enforcement, Price said. “I, and others, don’t want to live next door to a Spring Break house.”
Portal said short-term rentals are enforced by the Sheriff’s Office. First time violations are issued a ticket for $93. Repeat violations go to the city’s Special Magistrate, where owners can be fined up to $500 a day. But Portal said there are no set fines and they are hard to collect.
Attorney Trask said the city always asks for the maximum fines in cases where people can profit off of a property. The Special Magistrate decides on the actual fines to issue.
Also, ticketing of violations has been “hit and miss,” Portal said, because the police are not dedicated to code enforcement and have many other duties. “There are not enough hours in the day to do this,” she said.
St. Pete Beach has a part-time staffer dedicating her time to finding illegal short-term rentals in the city, Portal said. Trask said the city of Dunedin uses a company that will dedicate a person to track short-term rentals daily for $15,000 a year. That is a lot less expensive than having a city employee do that as their job, he said.
Mayor John Hendricks said enforcement is key. “We’ve got to make sure the (short-term rental) ordinances are being enforced, or there’s no reason to have them.”
“And let’s start using magistrates that do something more than a $93 fine,” said Price.
Price said the city should consider budgeting for a short-term rental tracking service like Dunedin uses in the coming year’s budget. Trask said he would get more information on those services and report back.