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Sign code furor was a bum rap
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Updated: 10/09/2013 08:00:02AM

Sign code furor was a bum rap

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Now hear this: Bartow, Fla., has not declared war on God.

Or on America.

There is no jihad — no holy war — against the Almighty, against our Judeo-Christian heritage, against the American way of life, against members or veterans of the armed forces, against the First Amendment, or against the First Baptist Church.

Give it a rest!

More than a decade ago, Bartow passed an excellent sign ordinance. There were more meetings and hearings held on that ordinance than any other passed in Bartow in at least 50 years. This newspaper covered every exhaustive one of them.

The intent of the ordinance was to preserve some of Bartow’s small town charm in an age when some (not all) businesses try to outdo each other with ever more massive, garish signs more suited to a 70 miles-per-hour stretch of interstate highway than to a town of 15,000 or so mostly God-fearing people who would like to see a bit of small town Americana preserved for their children and grandchildren.

Not a single member of the zoning board, which spent endless hours trying to deal with every possible nuance relating to signage was — nor is any city commissioner — a Communist, a left-wing pinko, or any of the other epithets hurled at them from around the land in the past week.

What happened, City Manager George Long told the city commission Monday night, is that code enforcement officials decided last Tuesday that the red and white “God Bless America” yard signs distributed by the First Baptist Church around the Fourth of July had outlived any exemption allowed for “temporary” yard signs.

City commissioners neither ordered nor were alerted to the decision, according to Mayor James Clements, who told a standing room only audience Monday night that he has received “hundreds of messages and emails.”

Privately, he told friends that most of them are abusive, and “99 percent of them are not from Bartow residents.” Somebody posted his cellphone number on a website to encourage further harassment.

Whether there is a technical violation of the city’s sign ordinance, enforcement of which has been inconsistent at best, is subject to conjecture. Long said there is “internal conflict” in the sign code.

The decision to crack down on the “God Bless America” signs most assuredly does not rank as one of the better public relations initiatives to come from city hall.

This is 15 minutes of fame we could have done without.

That said, the notion that Bartow is a modern day Sodom or Gomorrah because somebody decided that a few dozen plastic yard signs should be removed after 90 days is a bum rap.

Clements said he has instructed the city attorney to recommend revisions to the code, and Long announced that he has ordered the code enforcement office “not to take enforcement action” on temporary signs until the review takes place.

These are reasonable actions by reasonable people.

We further suggest that rather than having the legal staff rush through a quick fix, the city refer the sign code back to the zoning and planning commission, under whose purview it comes.

There clearly is a difference between hand-lettered yard sale signs on fluorescent cardboard which remain on the roadside for weeks after the sales take place and professionally prepared religious/patriotic signs bearing timeless messages.

Bartow’s city commissioners can and will resolve this issue without further threats of violence or other recriminations from around the nation.

As they do so, we hope that those who are so intent on casting stones from afar will turn their attention to imperfections in their own neighborhoods.

Bartow has this matter well in hand.

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