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Big M roof sign deemed historically significant

—but business denied variance for total signs—

May 8, 2013
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Moss Marine received some good news and some bad news regarding signage for its 450 Harbor Ct. location.

The Fort Myers Beach Town Council approved a request for the Big M roof sign to be designated historically significant, but denied the marina business a sign variance for its overall existing signage that exceeds the maximum sign area as described by the Town sign ordinance. Both cases were heard in separate hearings at Town Hall on Monday morning.

The painted roof sign on one of the marina storage facilities was deemed a landmark due to a proved finding specified by the Historic Preservation Board, an offshoot of the Town's Local Planning Agency. The sign, which the LPA also approved, was designated historically significant due to a finding stating it being a "local landmark that is popularly recognized as a focal point in the community."

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Moss Marine at 450 Harbor Ct. on Fort Myers Beach was granted a historical designation for its roof sign, but denied a sign variance for its overall existing signage.

Though unanimously approved by the five Council members, they collectively conveyed disappointment on the issue due to the "lack of initiative" and "lack of enthusiasm" from the request's limited justification standpoint and since no one from the business showed up to the hearing to defend its case.

"Sentiment-wise, I agree with the LPA's decision to grant permission for that sign, but the way (the applicant) has handled this is odd," said Councilwoman Jo List.

According to Town records, the Moss family started the original "Moss Marina" in 1969. Shortly after the storage facilities were constructed, they had the sign painted on a roof of one of the buildings. The property has changed hands a few times. George Freeland now owns it.

The "Big M" became a nickname of the marina due to the shape of the storage barns, and the roof sign has been considered "iconic" to those who live on the Beach and visit it, as it is visible from Matanzas Bridge. The roof sign is roughly 1,500 square feet in area.

The original application was submitted December 2011. The LPA first heard the case in October 2012, and then held hearings three more times due to insignificant information supplied by the applicant. There have been letters submitted and a petition document as a plea to save the sign.

"We worked over a very long period of time with this applicant, trying to help them understand what we needed and guide them to present the information needed for the LPA and Town Council to make a determination on the request," said Town Zoning Coordinator Leslee Chapman.

Town Manager Terry Stewart stated the applicant was "woefully unprepared" at the first and second hearing. He admitted the request was "complex" and thought the applicant had significant opportunity to seek professional assistance in the matter.

"Between then and now, they still had the opportunity to seek additional assistance and prepare and bring information forward," he said. "In my view, that's no excuse."

"It doesn't seem to be very high on their list of importance," added Councilman Bob Raymond, after asking if anyone from Moss Marine was in the room. "I am really disappointed. It doesn't seem to be high on their objectives."

Councilman Dan Andre thought a sixth finding for designated sign historical significance should have been added for approval or denial: passion and enthusiasm.

"They only had to prove one finding. This is black and white of whether they meet their criteria or not," he said.

The other findings, not proved for this case, involve association with a historic person, event or location; providing significant evidence of the history of the product, business or service represented; being characteristic of a specific historic period; and an outstanding example of the art of sign-making.

Sam Ireland, a sign company employee, represented the applicant during a "last-minute" basis at the hearing. He was unable to provide proof of when the sign was painted on the roof.

"I was assigned this case with very short notice. The only picture I can find before digital was back in the late 1980s. I think it was painted on the roof sometime in the late 1970s," he said.

Regarding Moss Marine's total signage, Council denied without prejudice a request for a variance to permit existing signage that exceeds the maximum square area.

The sign ordinance allows each separate business establishment a maximum of 32 square feet for signage. The subject property has two businesses -Moss Marine and The Big M Casino- and is allowed 64 total square feet.

LPA granted the applicant three continuances to develop sufficient information for variance application. During a second application, the variance request was clearer, but lacked a total amount of sign area and location of signs. The roof sign is not included in the total square footage of signs on the property.

The fourth public hearing was held in March 2012, but justification was still lacking. LPA unanimously recommended denial.

"Quite frankly, staff was pretty frustrated at this point," said Chapman. "The actual request was still unclear, the total square footage requested was still unclear and locations of where the signs were was still unclear."

A submission from the applicant after the LPA hearings states a variance is unneeded due to exemption reasons, according to Town Attorney Marilyn Miller. She and Chapman reviewed the submission.

"There was some that we agreed are exempt. But even if you take those exemptions into account, they still far exceed the 64 square feet of area," Miller said. "That even adds to the confusion."

The sign ordinance deals with number of signs, location of signs and size of signs.

"It cannot be the Town's responsibility to bring forward that information," said Stewart. "It is a repeated challenge to have these folks provide that information. It is my view that staff and the LPA have displayed an enormous amount of patience and desire to assist the applicant. Both staff and LPA have gone the extra mile."

There were arguments about the business being isolated in one corner of Fort Myers Beach, and signage is needed to help customers navigate themselves to the businesses.

"As a neighbor, I think they need more signs," said Beach resident Ed Scott during public comment. "I can't tell you how many people I have directed to Moss Marine."

"My first time I drove down there, I got lost," admitted Ireland.

Nevertheless, Council members called out the applicant for a "lack of seriousness" on the issue.

"This is a waste of staff time, LPA time and Council time," said Andre.

"I am really flummoxed with all the extension of time and all the opportunity provided to the owners of Moss Marine that they are not here today," added List. "They just seems to be not interested or that they will do whatever they want to do."

All of the other marina businesses have their signage under a Commercial Planned Development deviation.

"Literally, it looks like staff would have to do a provision in the sign code only for one marina," said Town Community Development Director Walter Fluegel.

Discussion about an ordinance for waterfront businesses on Estero Bay and Matanzas Pass ensued. An equal playing ground with County businesses across the bay was heeded.

A proposed waterway ordinance for businesses facing the Back Bay has been placed on the Council agenda management list. It is expected to become an item discussed at a future workshop.

After the motion was unanimously agreed upon, List offered an afterthought.

"It is not fun to deny somebody something that could possibly be justifiable," she said. "I am hoping that people at Moss Marine will find someone to help them assemble the proper material and come back and ask for these variances."

Mayor's wife appointed to advisory committee

Carla Mandel, wife of Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, was unanimously appointed to the Town's Community Resource Advisory Board. Her assignment fills the last vacancy on the committee.

The responsibility of CRAB is to seek to enhance the quality of life on Fort Myers Beach by creating a vision for the community. Its mission is achieved through the promotion and implementation of such community activities as public education, leadership, volunteerism, beautification and recreation through the development and cultivation of a corps of community leaders and volunteers.



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