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Updated: 04/12/2014 08:00:01AM

New sign ordinance OK’d

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There now is a new ordinance in Bartow regarding non-commercial removable signs on private residential property: Ordinance No. 2013-14, and with it the The God Bless America signs that started this, brouhaha can stay in place.

As he had done at the March 17 regular meeting, in giving his report on the Final Reading and Public Hearing, Assistant City Attorney Drew Crawford — who had been designated to work with the Planning and Zoning Commission to develop changes — first presented a synopsis of the entire matter and then followed up with the proposals city commissioners had OK’d on March 17. At that time, commissioners had adopted the following proposals:

• Residents will be permitted no more than three signs in their yards

• Signs will be no larger than 6 square feet

• Signs must be (at a minimum) 5 feet back for right-of-ways

Following Crawford’s presentation, who stood for questions, Commissioner Adrian A.J. Jackson spoke of his concern about one part of the ordinance that concerned itself with physical conditions of signs. Part of the ordinance requires signs be maintained in good order. To Jackson, the issue then becomes a matter of opinion.

“We may deem the sign in poor repair but the property owner may disagree,” he said.

Part of the answer lay in the material used to make the sign. As a rule, said Crawford, most of the signs are made of plastic, for durability. However, signs that might be made by a homeowner probably will be from cardboard, thus susceptible to weather and more likely to degrade. The section of the ordinance addressing that situation is a tool for the city, said Crawford.

“If we see a sign in disrepair and for two months, the city can proceed,” Crawford said. At that point Code Enforcement can let it be known the sign must either be replaced or taken down. Crawford added it would not be a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach.

“It will be a case-by-case situation.”

With that, Mayor James F. Clements opened the floor to anyone in the audience who wished to comment. However, unlike the situation that originally arose last October, in which a number of residents turned out for the Oct. 5 meeting and spoke their minds, no one from the community stepped forward to address commissioners at the April 7 regular meeting; in fact, other than those in the city’s employ, there only were two people in the chamber.

The 5-0 vote was an expressed sigh of relief for commissioners.

“Gentleman, it’s been a long time since that morning I received a phone call at 6:15 in the morning from someone in Massachusetts taking Bartow to task,” said Mayor James F. Clements. He offered his thanks to Crawford and City Attorney Sean Parker.

“Let me add my kudos to the citizens of Bartow as well,” said Commissioner Leo Longworth.

About the sign issue

The situation originally arose as a result of action taken in late September/early October 2013 when the Code Enforcement department notified residents who still had signs on their front yards from July 4. The signs, distributed by First Baptist Church of Bartow bore the message “God Bless America” in addition to wordage about Independence Day, and artwork featuring Old Glory and a cross.

A hue and cry erupted as a result, leading to at least one citizen contacted the Tampa affiliate of Fox News to complain. That later led to other TV stations in Tampa and Orlando to descend upon the city. From there the action drew nationwide attention, “aided” in part by the Internet.

At that meeting, City Manager George A. Long dispelled any misunderstandings that the action taken by Code Enforcement was due to wording on the signs, which many residents believed was both an infringement upon free speech rights as well as being anti-God and anti-Christian.

Long also announced then that a six-month moratorium had been instituted in order to study the issue at length and, if need be, propose amendments to the ordinance then in place.

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