BELLEAIR BLUFFS – After hearing reports of struggling businesses in town and the pleas of an owner, City Commission members moved up a planned review of the city’s sign code, with an eye to making changes that could help the businesses.

Speaking at the Dec. 11 Board of Commissioners meeting, Denise Gillis, owner of Westshore Pizza in the Bonefish Grill shopping plaza on West Bay Drive, told the commission her pole sign fell down when the winds related to Hurricane Irma swept through the area. The city’s sign code did not allow her to replace the sign, she said.

Since that time, Gillis said her business has dropped, which she believes is caused by the loss of the sign.

“We’re really struggling,” Gillis said. “The sign blew down, and without a sign we don’t stand out. Our customers thought we had closed.”

The current sign code, adopted in 2010, allows only one monument sign per business parcel. In that shopping center on the north side of West Bay Drive, that is the Bonefish Grill sign, which also names other businesses. The space on the sign is filled up, Gillis said.

Gillis’ Westshore Pizza pole sign was non-conforming, but was allowed as long as it stood. When the sign was damaged and fell down, Gillis said she was told it violated the sign code and could not be put back up.

City Attorney Thomas Trask said that was correct.

“It’s a non-conforming sign, and your code says once it is demolished completely or more than 50 percent, it needs to be brought into compliance with the city code,” he said. “We don’t allow those (individual business signs) any more.”

Mayor Chris Arbutine said the current sign law allows only one sign per business complex, “but that wasn’t always the case. Once, people could have multiple signs in a complex.”

Commissioner Suzy Sofer, who owns Cody’s Original Roadhouse across the street on West Bay, said the sign code could possibly be revised to permit monument signs based on square footage, so more than one sign could be allowed in a large business complex.

Sofer also said businesses were hurt by Hurricane Irma, which caused many to shut down for a week or longer. They had no income during that time, but still had bills to pay. That set off “a domino effect” of struggling businesses, Sofer said. One in the area has failed (Wild Fields), and others could follow after the first of the year, she said.

Sofer said FEMA, which has helped the cities, is not giving money to businesses, “and we are starting to see the effects.”

The sign code needs to be revised “and anything we can do to help the businesses will be appreciated,” Sofer said. “I don’t want to lose any more businesses in Belleair Bluffs.”

Arbutine, whose family owns Belleair Coin and the Silver Queen in Largo, said signs have become an important way for businesses to advertise, especially with the decline of some other media, such as daily newspapers. Arbutine said his business has benefitted from a large electronic sign in front.

The commission was starting the process to revise the business sign code earlier this year, but that project went nowhere after the specialized attorney advising the city died unexpectedly. Now, with the businesses struggling and needing help, “we need to workshop this as soon as possible,” said Sofer.

That will be done at next month’s meeting, scheduled for Jan. 8.

Lock vehicles, residents warned

A recent rash of thefts from cars in nearby Belleair Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, where there were 30 auto burglaries in a two-day span, prompted a warning from Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Noble Katzer.

“You need to make sure your vehicles are locked,” he said.

City Clerk Debra Sullivan read a report from PCSO Capt. Mike Leiner saying a recent check of vehicles in Belleair Bluffs showed 21 percent were not locked. The officer said 31 out of 145 cars were unlocked the night of Dec. 9.

“That’s a lot of cars – even with all the warnings, over all the years, and all the times we’ve warned people about this,” Sullivan said.

Cpl. Katzer stressed that people should not leave keys or valuables in their cars, because that’s what the thieves are after. “Keys, guns and money, that’s what they want.”

Katzer said the burglars will check out a number of vehicles, and pass them up until they find one that is unlocked. Then they will look around inside and take what they want, leaving other items untouched.

Belleair Bluffs has an ongoing program to reduce vehicle burglaries, with officers regularly checking for unlocked cars. When they do encounter an unlocked vehicle, they leave a notice and lock the doors.