TARPON SPRINGS — When the Tarpon Springs Board of Commissioners in late 2019 agreed to changes to the city’s sign code, including mandating A-frame sandwich board signs be made of metal or wood, effectively outlawing the plastic signs popular with many merchants, the pandemic had yet to begin.
After the coronavirus crisis hit in March 2020, city officials suspended enforcement of the new codes as merchants coped with the economic impact of the pandemic. But when statewide emergency restrictions were lifted in May, and after extending the deadline for merchants to come into compliance with the new rules several times, City Manager Mark LeCouris announced the moratorium would expire on Aug. 1.
Despite the city giving them several months’ notice, the news still infuriated many business owners, including Tarpon Springs Merchants Association president David Gauchman.
“This is a financial burden on people who are trying to get through tough times,” Gauchman, who owns two shops on the Sponge Docks, said during an Aug. 11 visit to the historic tourist district. “Mark LeCouris told me this has been coming for a while, but that doesn’t make it right.”
During the Aug. 24 BOC meeting the commission addressed the hot-button topic, and Gauchman and several other representatives of the local business community spoke out against the code changes.
“I’ve had metal signs, I’ve had wood signs, I’ve had plastic signs, and I don’t think that’s the problem,” Gauchman said. “I think what’s on the signs is the problem.”
The city “should’ve maybe talked to some business owners about what looks good and what doesn’t look good, but you made a decision on eliminating the plastic and going with metal or wood,” Gauchman said. “If they’re professionally done, I don’t think it matters what frame they use.”
That opinion was shared by others, including Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive Jean Hungiville, former city commissioner Peter Dalacos and 2022 commission candidates Jacqui Turner and Panagiotis Koulias, who noted chalk typically washes away in the rain and plastic is sturdier and lasts longer than wood or metal signs. “We’re running into this fine line of micromanaging again,” Koulias said. “When you regulate the signs … being creative, unique, original is what creates that attraction. I’m always going to support small businesses and we need to decide on revamping this ordinance because it’s being used as a tool against the small business owners.”
Turner, Koulias’s Seat 4 opponent, noted, “we live on the water and metal rusts, wood warps, the plastic is sturdy and safe for everyone. I agree it sounds like more of an issue of what’s on the sign not what it’s made of.”
Following the public comments, Vice Mayor Jacob Karr said he stood firm in his desire to move forward with the changes. “This was discussed over two years,” Karr said, adding they had four workshops and public several discussions over multiple boards on the topic. “I have no desire to change it as it stands today.”
Commissioner Costa Vatikiotis said after speaking with Gauchman he believes the commission “needs to be considerate to what the business owners are requesting. As I’ve always said, ordinances are never forever, they can change. And I don’t have any problem changing this.”
Mayor Chris Alahouzos, who requested the item be placed on the agenda, agreed, noting he “thinks it’s time for us to look at this ordinance and fine tune it. As I said earlier, the reason why this was in place was to make sure the signs look presentable, and they look good for the tourists. But we now realize we have some changes to make because by doing that we created some hardships for some people.”
He then asked LeCouris to “bring back some recommendations as to how can we fine tune this ordinance and revise this ordinance,” and LeCouris said if the commission agreed to revisit the ordinance, the city’s current code enforcement efforts would be halted. Three of the four commissioners in attendance voted in favor of the request, with Karr voting against. Commissioner Townsend Tarapani was absent.
Afterward, Mayor Alahouzos spoke about the decision to revisit the A-frame portion of the sign code.
“I got a lot of calls from different business owners, and I spoke to David Gauchman who told me the new codes represent a hardship on local businesses, and the last thing I want to do is to make it difficult for our businesses to survive, especially during these difficult times,” he said. “That’s why I requested the item be put on the agenda, and why I asked the City Manager to get with staff and come up with recommendations to change the ordinance.
Alahouzos noted “it’s not an easy process,” because any proposed changes would have to go before the Planning and Zoning Board as well as two public BOC meetings, but he said all he wants is for the signs “to be professionally done, regardless of if they’re wood, metal or plastic. The purpose of the ordinance was to make all the signs look nice and presentable for our tourists and to benefit everybody, not to penalize our business owners.”