TARPON SPRINGS — In the spring of 2020 the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners approved changes to the city’s sign code, including banning plastic sandwich board, or A-frame, signs and enacting certain standards to make the wood or metal signs look more presentable by eliminating attachments.
The decision caused a stir in a business community that was just starting to grapple with the effects of the coronavirus crisis, and as a result the commission elected to put off enforcing the changes during the pandemic so as not to cause any additional hardship for local merchants.
But after statewide emergency restrictions were lifted in early May, city officials warned merchants that the moratorium on the sign code enforcement would expire on Aug. 1, 2021. Unfortunately, despite a busy summer tourist season, businesses are still dealing with the effects of the ongoing pandemic, and many are unhappy with being told they have to replace their expensive plastic signs or face a daily fine.
“I’ve received complaints from businesspeople, including the president of the merchants’ association about the A-frame signs,” Mayor Chris Alahouzos said during his commission comments on Aug. 10, referring to Tarpon Springs Merchants Association president David Gauchman. “The complaint is the chalk signs are washing off from the rain, and they have a problem with it. Perhaps we need to take a look at it and come up with some kind of solution.”
After City Attorney Tom Trask said the only way to change the requirements would be by ordinance, he suggested City Manager Mark LeCouris meet with his staff and “come up with a recommendation on how to move forward,” including potentially revising the code, which would require a majority vote from the commission.
LeCouris, however, reminded the board that “when we did the last six-month extension, we warned everyone about this, we warned them ahead of time that Aug. 2 was the day we would start enforcing the ordinance that you put together,” and he seemed reluctant to restart the whole process.
“We will look at this issue, but again we’re going forward with what this board choose to do and put into effect,” LeCouris said, noting he’s “heard from the merchants for the past year what the issues are and they’re not agreeing with the ordinance.”
On the Sponge Docks the next day the sign saga was a hot topic, as Gauchman visited a few shops and explained how his plastic signs, which he said cost roughly $150 apiece, are more durable and sturdier than wood and metal and can withstand the elements, including the constant rain and flooding, better.
“This is a financial burden on people who are trying to get through tough times,” Gauchman, who owns two shops on the docks, said as he pointed to his now illegal plastic A-frame sign, which he said the city’s Code Enforcement Officer told him to remove from the front of his store the day before or face a fine. “Mark LeCouris told me this has been coming for a while, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Inside the Sponge Exchange, Anclote Brew owner Bill Dennison said he’s “confused” about the new code. “There’s some confusion with us here because we’re on private property but were told our signs are still in violation,” Dennison said, noting the brewery’s signs “are informational and directional, they point people to us.” He said when he asked the CEO, “she said she’s not sure, she would have to check into it.”
Dennison, who took over Anclote Brew with his wife, Kelly, in 2018, said he understands the commission was “trying to declutter the place, to make it look nice,” but added, “I just hope they get it right and stick with it because I don’t want to spend thousands of dollars in signs and then it changes two months later.”
Near the entrance to the docks, Serafin de Cuba cigar shop owner Arnold Serafin shared his fellow merchants’ concerns. “The Code Enforcement Officer came in and said you have to remove your signs, and I said I don’t know why you’re making us to go to wood from plastic, which is more weather resistant, and chalk, which is not,” he said moments after Mayor Alahouzos returned his call from the previous night. “I’ll admit I got a little heated, but I brought it in.”
Serafin said he was “at a disadvantage” due his shop’s proximity to the entrance to Dodecanese Boulevard. “People pull down Dodecanese and they don’t even see me without my yellow sign there,” he said. “I mean business is slow here we need all the help we can get, and these signs do help.”
When contacted for comment Mayor Alahouzos said he’d like the commission to at least revisit the code.
“I talked to David Gauchman, and I also heard from Arnold at the cigar shop, and they told me about the hardships it’s creating, so I brought up the problems they’re having in the meeting,” he said by phone. “The City Attorney said to have the City Manager discuss it with staff and bring the recommendations back for the commission to review, so I want to see what he comes back with and place it on an agenda for discussion.”
When reminded LeCouris made his feelings about the issue clear in the meeting, Alahouzos said it was up to the commission to make the final decision, and “we can’t change it unless three members of the board vote to do it. But the reason why we changed the code was to make the signs look more uniform, more pleasing to the eye for tourists, not to penalize the business owners. The way I see it we did something, and the merchants say it’s not working properly, so we need to look at it again.”