The City of Pensacola’s recent approval of a planned 40-foot-tall illuminated sign along the downtown waterfront has sparked controversy amongst nearby residents and raised questions about the City’s handling of the issue.
Residents along Bayfront Parkway told The Pulse that they were blindsided by the news that the sign had been approved without any notification to nearby property owners. The sign, advertising the Fish House restaurant, would be placed at the rear of the restaurant’s parking area, facing Bayfront Parkway. The City’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) issued conceptual and final approvals for the sign at its August and September meetings.
Maria Goldberg — a spokesperson for Great Southern Restaurants, which owns the Fish House — said that she’d been working on the sign for about a year. “You and I know where the Fish House is, but what we’ve found is that a lot of out-of-town visitors sometimes have a hard time finding us,” she said. Collier Merrill, the president of the restaurant group, turned to Goldberg, who has a background in art and design, having served for eight years as the executive director of the Pensacola Museum of Art.
Goldberg says the sign was inspired by “Old Florida” style signage and went through dozens of iterations before they felt like they’d gotten it right. “We really wanted to do something cool and fun and iconic,” she said.
Neighbors divided on sign
Last month, Fish House co-owner Collier Merrill told the Pensacola News Journal that “the neighbors up and down Bayfront … everyone seems to like it.”
However, while none appeared at either ARB meeting, at least six nearby property owners did send emails or letters opposing the sign, including what appears to be a majority of property owners along the 400 block of Bayfront Parkway, across the street from the sign’s proposed location. “I am a property owner on Bayfront Parkway, and I question a very large sign in our historic district facing my property,” wrote Jim O’Connor. “Also of deep concern is the precedent this would set for other signage requests … Please protect our historic area from commercialization.”
Several nearby residents told The Pulse that they didn’t speak against the sign at either of the ARB meetings because they weren’t aware of the meetings. City spokesman Vernon Stewart confirmed that the City did not notify nearby residents that the ARB would be considering the proposed sign, as often takes place for rezoning requests and other changes, but which is not required for a request of this nature.
In response to a public records request, the City of Pensacola said it did receive one letter in support of the proposed signage, from attorney Rod Magie, who lives in the Crown Cove development further down Bayfront. “I believe such a sign would surpass the current aesthetic status of the nearby industrial Port site,” Magie wrote. “I also believe the Fish House deserves the reputation as an iconic local tourist destination, such as Joe Patti’s does, and large signage is needed to properly notify out of towners of the off-street location.”
The strange case of SSD zoning
City officials confirmed on Monday that the sign, as proposed, is both taller and larger in surface area than the maximum allowed by the city code. Though located within the boundaries of the Pensacola Historic District, the Fish House sits on City-owned property zoned SSD —”site specific development” — which city staffers say exempts the restaurant not only from the historic district’s strict rules on signage, but also from any signage rules whatsoever.
Most zoning designations include specific rules about what you can and can’t do: allowable uses, lot sizes, regulations governing everything from lighting to landscaping to signage. The SSD zone, however, has none of that. In fact, the entire section of the city code governing SSDs is less than two hundred words long, and SSD zoning is sparsely mentioned in the rest of the code. The position of the City’s planning staff is essentially that because SSD zones are not specifically mentioned in the sections of the code dealing with historic district or signage regulations, those rules simply don’t apply to SSD-zoned parcels.
Why then, did the signage have to go before the Architectural Review Board in the first place? According to Sherry Morris, the City’s Planning Services Administrator, ARB review was required because the subject property is located within the boundaries of the Pensacola Historic District — even though, she says, the property is not subject to the rules of the district.
Within the city limits, there are 41 properties zoned SSD, including the Pensacola Civic Center and the Port Royal development. Some of the SSD-zoned parcels are adjacent to major roads and residential areas. It’s unclear what would happen if owners of other SSD-zoned sites wanted to construct a similar sign. While city staff says that many of the development plans for such sites address signage, what if any public review and approval process would be used for similar requests at other SSD sites is unclear.
The Fish House reaches out
Merrill’s comments regarding support for the sign were misconstrued, said Goldberg. While she and Merrill had shown the plans to “a lot of people” — receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback, she says — they hadn’t consulted with many of the property owners along Bayfront.
Goldberg said that once the restaurant became aware of the nearby residents’ concerns, they immediately began reaching out. “We said, hey, let’s get everyone together and have a town hall meeting,” she said. That meeting, which took place Monday night, brought most of the concerned neighbors together with Merrill, Goldberg, and representatives from Plastic Arts Sign Company, the vendor which will produce the sign.
The meeting — which included a demonstration of one of the sign’s letters — appears to have eased many of the residents’ concerns. “We all agreed … if these were the letters used and [the sign] is placed in the location they proposed … then the Bayfront owners will not have a concern,” said one of the residents. In addition to the demonstration, residents as well as Goldberg told The Pulse that there was productive discussion about potentially turning the sign off after a certain hour and/or limiting the sign’s animated element.
Minor change or major change?
There’s at least one property owner that the Fish House hasn’t managed to win over, though. Pensacola attorney Bob Kerrigan and his law partners — who together own a number of properties within the historic district — have filed an appeal of the ARB’s approval, asking the City’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to essentially overturn the decision.
The key issue is whether or not the erection of the sign is a “minor change” or a major one. If it’s held to be a minor change, all that’s required for the project to move forward are the signatures of the City’s Planning Services Administrator, the City Building Official, the City Engineer, and Mayor. Those officials, including Mayor Ashton Hayward, signed off on the request in early September, after the ARB’s conceptual approval.
A major change, on the other hand, would require approval by the Planning Board and City Council.
Unfortunately, Pensacola’s land development code doesn’t clearly define what constitutes a minor versus a major change, saying only that “minor changes” can be approved by City officials when “in their opinion the changes do not make major changes in the arrangement of buildings or other major features of the final development plan.” The code says that major changes include — but are not limited to — “changes in land use or an increase or decrease in the area covered by the final development plan.”
The sign isn’t the first time the Fish House has sought the approval of a significant project as a “minor change.” In 2006, the $1 million expansion of the Fish House’s outdoor deck — which included a 3,500 square foot addition, a bandstand, and more — was approved as a minor change.
What comes next
Kerrigan’s appeal of the ARB decision is set to be heard at the November 18 meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustments. Due to the pending appeal, the City has not issued a permit for the sign, which means the Fish House cannot legally begin constructing the sign until the appeals process is complete.
Should the ZBA side with Kerrigan and determine that the sign is a “major change,” the sign would then have to go through what City planning staff called a “full-blown Development Plan approval,” which would require both the Planning Board and City Council to take up the issue — a process which would undoubtedly stretch into the new year. On the other hand, if Kerrigan’s ZBA appeal is unsuccessful, his only remaining option would be to take the issue to court. City code gives appellants thirty days to petition the circuit court to review the decision.
Timeline of events
|July 20, 2015||Sign application submitted to City’s Architectural Review Board|
Application submitted by Maria Goldberg on behalf of the Fish House restaurant.
|August 20, 2015||Architectural Review Board grants conceptual approval|
The board unanimously votes to conceptually approve the sign’s location and scale, on the condition that the sign’s design and lighting come back to the board for final approval.
|September 3, 2015||City officials sign off on change|
City Planning Services Administrator Sherry Morris, Building Official Bill Weeks, City Engineer Derrik Owens, and Mayor Ashton Hayward signed off on the sign as a “minor change.”
|September 17, 2015||ARB issues final approval|
Despite concerns about a lack of public input raised by at least one board member, the board votes unanimously to issue final approval of the sign.