Digital sign draws resident protests

A rendering of the sign proposed for the intersection of the causeway and Gulf Boulevard in Belleair Beach shows a structure that is 9 feet tall, styled to coordinate with other city signs. A plan by the county to put a series of the signs up and down Gulf Boulevard has been canceled.

BELLEAIR BEACH – Residents crowded city hall at the Oct. 2 City Council meeting to voice their opposition to a proposed electronic digital message sign with animated features that would be located in city-owned Crossman Park at the corner of Gulf Boulevard and the Causeway. Protests were also seen through social media and emails received at city hall.

Some who voiced concerns were OK with a digital sign if placed outside of city hall, where the current city sign is located. Others did not like either the sign or its location.

Many said a digital message board on Gulf Boulevard does not fit the residential, noncommercial character of Belleair Beach.

Council members heard the protests and agreed to put the issue on next month’s meeting agenda.

Most of the public comment section of the council meeting was taken up by the digital sign commentary. The issue was first reported in the Sept. 14 Beach Bee.

Audrey Greenberg said a digital sign would be more eye-catching than the existing city sign, but she did not like the placement. The sign is to be put on Gulf Boulevard to qualify for county funds for the beautification of Gulf Boulevard, she said.

“How does a digital sign qualify as an act of beautification?” Greenberg wanted to know.

Further, placing a digital sign on a green space like Crossman Park “would change the whole residential feel of the city just as much as a forbidden commercial business sign would,” said Greenberg.

“We don’t need a sign like that on that corner,” said Bill Shaw. He said a digital sign would be the beginning of “a slippery slope where we would end up like a commercial outfit advertising any and everything.”

Dave Gardella said a digital animated message sign is something he would expect to see at the entryway to Treasure Island or Clearwater Beach, not in a residential community like Belleair Beach.

“This is totally the opposite of what I think about with Belleair Beach,” said Gardella. “We don’t even have a trolley stop, and we’re going to put up a digital sign?”

Mark Goldman, who opposed the sign at last month’s council meeting, said the council is hearing “the first of many people who will be coming to city hall to express their displeasure with any decision to put up a digital sign.”

In a later comment, former Mayor Rob Baldwin said residents are also using social media to oppose the sign. In an email message, he sent a long list of comments on the subject from the site NextDoor. Most did not want the sign. A few samples: “I have never seen an unobtrusive electronic sign.” “A digital sign is a waste of taxpayer dollars.” “Our city council is a joke if they proceed with the digital sign.” “A fountain in the middle of Crossman Park is a better idea.”

Council members, after agreeing to advertise for bids for “a digital monument sign at Crossman Park” at their Sept. 6 meeting, heard the residents and decided to reconsider.

Council Member Pamela Gunn said she had read the remarks on NextDoor.

“There are a lot of upset citizens,” she said.

“Since we have so many residents talking about our digital sign, we should put that back on the agenda next month and re-discuss it,” said council member John Pietrowski.

All council members present agreed.

Council Member Wanda Schwerer said the digital sign had generated the most citizen participation on any issue since utility undergrounding. Schwerer thanked the residents for their emails and “for coming out tonight.”

“We’ll put the issue of the sign on next month’s agenda,” Mayor Leslie Notaro said.

Nontraditional financing to be used for utility undergrounding

The city will be turning to nontraditional means to provide financing for the utility undergrounding project in the Belleview Island neighborhood, where residents have been wanting their utility wires put underground for years.

Finance Director Melanie Kruszona said the city’s bank, Sun Trust, and other traditional bankers “did not want to structure the loan in the way we want.”

That is, as a non-ad valorem tax assessment that would go to the involved residents, who would pay for it through their property tax bills.

The Florida League of Cities was willing to provide such a loan, Kruszona said.

“They were willing to lend on the project, structure the loan the way we need it, and do all the underwriting,” she said.

Kruszona said the Florida League of Cities’ bond attorney told her such a loan “could be very easily put together.”

“They are able to structure the loan so it is a special non-ad valorem assessment on the residents’ tax bill backed by their property,” Kruszona said. “That is what we are looking for.”

The residents want a 20-year loan, to minimize the monthly cost. Kruszona said that is a possibility, with a 15-year bond as a worst-case scenario.

Council members praised Kruszona for finding a solution to what could have been a major obstacle in the residents’ years-long efforts to underground the utility wires in their neighborhood.

“Our thanks to Melanie for taking the time to work through this and come up with the solution,” said Council Member Mitch Krach.

“You’ve done a lot of good work,” said council member Jewels Chandler.

“The Florida League of Cities is behind this. And that is a good thing,” Notaro said.

“Our best course of action is to go with them,” said Kruszona.