Sign pollution vs. attracting customers

A six-foot tall cigarette box made out of pipes and cardboard sits in the window of Cheap Smokes and Phones on Federal Highway in Hollywood.

The $600 costume was meant to attract customers in need of half-price cigarettes.

Instead, it sits lifeless in the store window, said Daniel Hearn, the business’ owner.

That’s because it violates the city’s sign ordinance and he could be fined if a code enforcement officer catches him using it outdoors.

“It’s not worth getting a violation, but I have to do something to get business,” said Hearn, who has been at the 1426 S. Federal Hwy. location for about seven months. “People don’t know we are here.”

Hearn is not alone in his struggle to advertise his business.

Regulating signs is something cities across South Florida struggle with — too many can create sign pollution, but without them, businesses find it difficult to attract customers.

And though rules governing them are different from city to city across Broward and Miami-Dade counties, business owners and city officials say there needs to be a balance between what works aesthetically and what will help stores stay in business.

“It’s something that is constantly changing,” said Dean Piper, Pembroke Pines’ zoning administrator. “The city is constantly looking at its rules to keep up with the times.”

Pembroke Pines’ sign laws take into account when the streets were built and when the businesses opened. That’s because the sign ordinance is constantly changing, and old signs are typically grandfathered in.

About a year ago, Pembroke Pines loosened its rules to allow more signage and make it more uniform, Piper said. Business owners are allowed 1.5 square feet of signage per foot of storefront. Owners of shops within plazas can split their allowances between monument signs in the front and lettering on the building.

“It’s a sign of the economy,” said Piper, who added that the changes were meant to promote businesses.

But Pembroke Pines, like Hollywood and Hallandale Beach, prohibits people from holding signs out- doors.

Enforcement can be tricky, Piper acknowledged.

Hearn, the cigarette shop owner, said that because trees block his building, there should be allowances for bigger, brighter letters and he should be able to use his costume.

“It’s a great way to get people in,” he said.

The sign the city allows will not be visible to passing motorists, he said. And, it’s too expensive. “Especially now, when I am just trying to stay in business.”

The rules are meant to prevent a “free-for-all,” said Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober.

In Hollywood, there is a lengthy permit process that includes approval of design, placement, shape, type, color and material.

The size of the sign depends on the size of the property. For example, properties with less than 100 linear feet of street frontage can have a sign that is 10 square feet with 12-inch-high letters.

Bober said a few business owners’ complaints that the city’s codes are too tough are not reason enough to relax the standards.

Last November, Miramar changed its code after gathering input from businesses, residents and professionals.

While the city still wants to control visual clutter, it now allows for bigger signs in some areas, and for people to be outside holding signs as long as they are not blocking traffic.

In Homestead, a flurry of complaints — and code-violation notices — about illegal signs prompted the city to hold public workshops to teach people about what the city does and does not allow.

“Our ordinance didn’t allow certain types of signs, but people were losing their business because there was no way to get their name out there,” said City Council member Elvis Maldonado, who spearheaded the meetings in August 2011.

At the time, the business community was in a tiff because competing shopping centers had submitted anonymous complaints against each other about the type and sizes of their signs.

The city recently changed its code to allow electronic signs, according to the Development Services Department. Maldonado said the city would take another look at the issue soon to make sure its code provides the right balance of safety and aesthetics while still allowing businesses to advertise. It could choose to allow neon signs, which are currently aren’t allowed.

Added Maldonado: “A friend of mine said, ‘A business with no sign is a sign of no business.’ ”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report