Home / Business / Safety Harbor Merchants Irate Over “Signgate”

Safety Harbor Merchants Irate Over “Signgate”

The Dog House of Safety Harbor.
The Dog House of Safety Harbor.

Anyone who’s ever tried to open a new brick-and-mortar business knows adhering to city and county codes and following proper procedures can be one of the most taxing aspects of the entire process.

For some Safety Harbor merchants, the experience of opening a new business in the city has been nothing short of a nightmare.

The owners of two new businesses that were recently profiled in our Safety Harbor Business Beat appeared before the City Commission last week to voice their concerns over the treatment they have received from certain staff members in regards to signage for their shops, and the trio minced no words when it came to how they felt about the situation.

“When we decided to open our business… we received our first “welcome” from the City, not a handshake or a pleasant hello or even a kind word,” Kelli Chickos, who along with her husband, Steve, opened the Dog House of Safety Harbor in July, told the commission. “Instead, several days after we opened, we were rudely visited by a code enforcement officer and blasted with all of our violations, illegal signage and other apparent — except to us — business improprieties.”

Steve and Kelli Chickos with then Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub in November 2013.
Steve and Kelli Chickos with then Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub in November 2013.

“This shouldn’t be a surprise, because as we have been told over and over again, this is typical of the way the City treats new business owners,” she added. “There is an unfortunate and quite frankly embarrassing reputation that extends far beyond our city boundaries about the awful treatment the City of Safety Harbor delivers to its new business owners.”

While the Chickos’, who earned the Mayor’s Award of Excellence in 2013 for beautifying their downtown residence, don’t dispute the fact that some of their signage was in violation of city code, they do take exception to what they claim is a blatant pattern of selective enforcement in town.

“As new business owners, our intent was not to turn this into ‘signgate,’” Steve Chickos said during the meeting on September 7. “Unfortunately, this is where its escalated due to the inconsistent interpretation of the city’s sign code, selective enforcement of the city code, and what many believe to be an outdated sign code.”

Chickos then went on to display photos of other business in town with signage similar to his, including vinyl banners attached to the building, signs exceeding the maximum height over a roofline, and excessive window decorations.

“The pictures show…that selective enforcement is in fact taking place,” he said.

After the Chickos’ spoke, Gregory Cilmi, who opened the Organic Goddess Juice Bar and Temple Goddess Dance Studio in July, took the issue one step further.

An orange "Public Hearing Notice" was placed outside of Gregory Cilmi's shop as a way of notifying him of his sign code violations. Credit: Gregory Cilmi.
An orange “Public Hearing Notice” was placed outside of Gregory Cilmi’s shop as a way of notifying him of his sign code violations. Credit: Gregory Cilmi.

Cilmi said after he was notified by code enforcement of his violations and asked to receive them in writing, he was shocked to find an orange “Public Hearing Notice” sandwich board sign outside his shop listing his violations a few days later.

“Yesterday I found a notice of public hearing posted in front of my store. It had two pages of violations,” he said. “This was my first written warning as to what was wrong with what I have.”

“Why was it served to me this way? It was almost an embarrassment. That’s my main concern.”

City Manager Matt Spoor addressed the merchants’ concerns, stating that the city isn’t perfect and he believes the issues can be corrected, and the commissioners eventually agreed to hold a workshop in order to gather more input and information on the issue.

“I think we should look at the whole sign issue, like we did with the trees,” Commissioner Carlos Diaz said in reference to the city’s extensive tree ordinance process. “We need to put something comprehensive together and put a moratorium on violators.”

“I think it’s a great suggestion,” Commissioner Janet Hooper added.

Steve Chickos shows pictures of sign code violations to the Safety Harbor City Commission.
Steve Chickos shows pictures of sign code violations to the Safety Harbor City Commission.

While Cilmi and the Chickos’ said they are happy the city is willing to look at revising the sign code, they believe the real problem stems from the enforcement of the code, not so much the code itself.

“The overall problem is selective enforcement and the also it’s making up enforcement,” Cilmi, who claimed the CE officer slammed his door so hard the glass rattled and then deposited the orange sign in front of his shop days later, told Safety Harbor Connect.

“There’s a way to talk to people, and his way is abusive to the point of harassment, he added. He’s a loose cannon.”

“Addressing it is a step in the right direction, but it’s not just about the code, it’s about the culture of enforcement,” Steve Chickos, who said he’s had numerous run-ins with several city officials over the last few weeks, told Safety Harbor Connect.

When asked if he felt the whole situation has put a damper on opening his new business, he was characteristically straightforward.

“In Safety Harbor, oh very much so,” he said.

“We love it here. We’ve invested in this town,” he added. “But there’s too much gray here in regards to the code enforcement. And I’m not a gray person. I like consistency.”

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  1. Funny, Times Square is one of the most successful areas for business in the entire world.
    I think the pet shop needs more signage.
    That is what makes commercial areas commercial.
    If you want it to look like a cemetery, it will attract the traffic of a cemetery.

  2. All that can be said is “Support the Local Businesses of Safety Harbor”. They have put their blood, sweat, tears and finances into starting their business. Let us support and promote them! It is truly our “Safety Harbor” duty. SUPPORT LOCAL SAFETY HARBOR SMALL BUSINESSES!! If you can’t support them, then move on…..

  3. Sounds like the issue is not so much the code but the people who are enforcing it. If they hate their job so much and are being rude to people, maybe it’s time to hire someone else who will enforce the code, but do it in a respectful manner.

  4. New businesses are fragile and need support and gentle guidance not a harsh restrictive attitude. They should receive a welcoming feeling from the city and form a constructive partnership. They have invested time and money (and for a good cause) and are putting their creativity, passion and hardwork forward. Let’s give them our community support. Don’t try to crush it with negativity and a bad attitude. The city of Safety Harbor needs to be more open to new business ideas and start-ups and encourage a supportive friendly environment.

  5. Way to go Doghouse owners! Your store is fantastic and your unselfishness to give back to a worthy cause and bring a fun business to your city is so “far and above” that I was embarassed for your city leaders that gave you a hard time. Any of us that know you are well aware of your YEARS of generous giving of time, money and energy to animals in need. It’s about time you get to celebrate with a creative, fun business venture right in your own hometown! God Bless and hoping you have many years of business success!

  6. As a resident of Safety Harbor, I’m surprised and very disappointed to learn how our new business owners (“The lifeblood of our economy” according to the Small Business Administration) – especially in the areas of code enforcement.

    FOR GOD’S SAKE WE HAVE A GIANT PEPTO BISMOL-COLORED BUILDING ON MAIN STREET AND THEY ARE HARASSING A BUSINESS OVER SIGNAGE? It may be an “anchor” store in Safety Harbor, but every visitor i bring to town says, “Wow, i love how beautiful, quaint and welcoming this town is – but what’s up with that ugly pink art gallery?”

    I digress, I believe that if the Code Enforcement acted more like Building Inspectors, it would be a much smoother process. When you want to build, you have to submit plans, get them approved and inspected before you can move forward. Why not follow this process for new businesses? A clear and simple document stating the rules (showing examples of approved signage, etc), the submission and approval process, etc.

    Common sense says that the true health of a city is driven by it’s ability to welcome and support new small business owners. EVERY EMPLOYEE OF THE CITY SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE TO HELP PROMOT THAT WHEN WORKING WITH NEW BUSINESSES.

    Just my 2 cents!

    • Exactly, my disdain for signage ordinances aside, if a city is going to have a sign ordinance, then it needs to be clearly stated and enforced on every sign. Not sporadically.

      • Sign ordinances have a place lest we be inundated with ugly or oversized banners and tacky neon up and down Main St. I’m with Bob, the Pepto building doesn’t stand outin the way they were hoping. I don’t know what the business was going for when they chose that color but it’s ugly and doesn’t fit the Main St. Vibe.

        The issue here is how businesses are treated when they are unaware of or ignore the ordinance. The city should do all it can to assure compliance in a civil way. The business should return the favor and acknowledge their mistake and rectify it immediately and not challenge the code officer.

        SH is building a merchants association. If sign ordinances need to be looked at and updated maybe they can lead the charge.

        • If you don’t like the sign, then don’t frequent the business. The business has a vested interest into making its shop look good to the consumer. A city cannot begin to fathom what looks “good” and what doesn’t. You are getting into aesthetics and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. A city should govern things that are concrete and not subjective.

          • But sign codes are not individually subjective. A board approves them and elected officials pass them into law. SH does project class and taste. Many would say tacky banners and loud flashing neon would detract from the Main St. atmosphere.

            Perhaps you see Main St. as a mini Las Vegas? If so join the board and work to change the code. Maybe abolish code and we can have a free for all anything goes policy.

            Just as I don’t want a car on blocks on my neighbors overgrown lot I prefer a main st. devoid of neon and tacky plastic banners.

  7. Isn’t it your job as a business owner to make sure your entire business is within code before spending money on it? This article makes you and your business look stupid. Maybe the code enforcement officer is tired of dealing with people who open businesses; not following code and then complaining about code enforcement! Quit trying to get free publicity for your over priced dog toys. You’re just pissed that you have to spend more money on your business when you could have avoided all this by resesrching the city code before spending money on those hideous signs!

    • Wow! Sure seems like you have some kind of beef with this business. No one else thinks this article makes the business look stupid. It is obvious that you are either the code enforcer or you have a personal grievance with The Dog House.

    • Did you even read the article? Are you an unapologetic statist who takes the “well he/she shouldn’t have done it” if there is a stupid law on the books?

      The code isn’t enforced on other businesses and the compliance officer acted out of spite not professionalism. He even violated city rules. No wonder no new development has occurred in Safety Harbor for a long time. You people are backwards.

    • Jenny which I bet isn’t your real name & I bet you are the code enforcement officer whose harassing this caring business who are making a difference in the lives of pets without homes!
      Let’s analyze your post;
      1. “This article makes you and your business look stupid” oh really?? your whole post is stupid & filled with jealousy!
      2. :Maybe the code enforcement officer is tired of dealing with people who open businesses;” no surprise here we all know how some members of this community are working very hard to make things difficult to live & work in this city!
      3. “not following code and then complaining about code enforcement!” Your ignorance is showing, when somebody wants to open a business in this city they are given a packet with important information on how to go about getting permits & other useful information!
      4. “Quit trying to get free publicity for your over priced dog toys. You’re just pissed that you have to spend more money on your business” FYI publicity is a great way to find forever homes for homeless pets as for dog toys being overpriced is for a great cause to save the pets which takes money and when you post this; “You’re just pissed that you have to spend more money on your business” it clearly shows you are so heartless to take money away from homeless pets who need it lot more than money hungry negative bunch who have succeeded in taking away beauty & togetherness from this city!
      5. “when you could have avoided all this by resesrching the city code before spending money on those hideous signs!” Let’s start with your spelling; resesrching is incorrect; researching is how it’s supposed to be; as for calling the signs hideous, you are so clueless with Freedom of Expression which is everyones right, well such as life some have beautiful hearts & some have hideous hearts!
      As a respected business owner in this city I welcome The Dog House to the community in hopes you are surrounded by positive energy & pray you will overcome this uncalled harsh treatment & be very successful despite the negative energy & publicity bestowed upon you!
      Final words to fictitious Jenny why don’t you stop mud slinging from the shadows & own up to your post instead of hiding behind it!

    • Sounds like somebody can’t afford nice things! 🙂

      I think we need to have a fundraiser and open a community pantry for Jenny! Who is with me?

    • Your closing comment that the signs are hideous speaks volumes of your character….how does one call pictures of dogs and cats hideous?? Rather fitting with the rest of your comments. Loser!!

  8. I’m making no excuses for the code enforcement officer here. But many jurisdictions have a passive policy to code enforcement. Not certain what SH allows but many CE officials respond only to complaints and don’t go looking for violations neighbors aren’t complaining about.

    Was there a complaint about these two businesses? Were they honestly not aware signage requires a permit? My dealing with CE have been civil. I was made aware of my transgressions verbally, I took the criticism seriously and learned I was at fault and repaired the problem. I was wrong and took responsibility. There was no written notice or sandwich board. But I would have expected that if I didn’t follow the rules explained to me verbally.

    Now if SH has a hothead Code enforcement officer who escalated these issues without provocation we certainly have to address that.

    • It was determined that this was done as a city wide sweep, not a public complaint. Banners like mine are used by no fewer than 9 other businesses in a five block radius. The sandwich boards were previously approved by city hall, yet the CE marked them as a violation unchecked, as well as my open sign, which is also within code. It was also stated at a city hall meeting today that publicly posting code violations on a Notice of Public Hearing board is NOT policy, nor was it appropriate, and they apologized on behalf of the city, stating it should never have happened. Written notice is supposed to be procedure as a first warning, but it is usually mailed, emailed or hand delivered. This CE officer did not attempt any of these normal options, but decided a Scarlet Letter of public embarrassment was in order. The city manager has expressed that it was handled wrong and will never happen again.

  9. The Dog House sign is very attractive and creative. I seem to recall one of the City leaders mentioning that the businesses need to do more to spruce up the outside of their buildings, to invite more commerce. They gave Sandwich on Main as a good example of what a business can do to make their storefront creative and inviting. The kind of messaging the Dog House is getting sounds contrary to that statement. I hope the City does make the standards more flexible to invite storefront owners to be creative with their buildings. The Dog House signage is in keeping with the image that the City residents like; that being Safety Harbor as a creative, artsy town. I would also like the City to examine their business practices to see if we are making things difficult for owners to open new businesses in Safety Harbor.

  10. Unfortunately a lot of downtown business are going through this right now. Signage that has been in place for almost three years had to be taken down at my business because of this new enforcement.

  11. the problem is just not code enforcement. Try calling a general contractor to do work for you. When you tell them the city you live in. They want nothing to do with the job. Building and permits department are way to powerful in this town. For one Danny is as rude a person I have ever delt with

  12. The signs look inviting and are very cleaver!
    Code Enforcement needs to be more concerned about properties around the Northside of Mainstreet that have multiple cars, trucks, debris, school bus, and overgrown yards, that are breeding mosquitoes because of containers full of standing water, instead of businesses that are beautifying our Downtown area and bringing in business and tax money!

  13. As a Safety Harbor resident I’m embarrassed by the City’s treatment of these business owners. The problem with Government officials is they’ve never put their life savings on the line. They want their salary, extensive benefit packages, and 40 paid days off a year, and then they want to go out and beat up the very people providing it all? I have been by both businesses and found nothing wrong with their signs (the Dog House looks great!) These entrepreneurs are trying to draw in business so they can provide their families with a good living. In turn they are paying taxes to the city. Wake up Safety Harbor!!!

  14. A city should be helping and welcoming new businesses and helping them. This is the American Dream, I love the store front of The Dog House of Safety Harbor, it’s creative and refreshing. I am glad the city is going to look into this matter and hopefully create a forum to give these businesses the help they need. I also hope they investigate the code enforcement officer whom is using his power like a club.

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