Dania Whips Out a New Sign Ordinance

The owners of the city's newest sex emporium find small-town life a bit, shall we say, rigid

Sean Newman swears he wasn't trying to attract attention when he and his wife opened an ultrachic adult boutique complete with leather whips and $500 latex bodysuits in the rustic heart of downtown Dania.

He almost manages to say it with a straight face, too.
But then the flicker of a smile crosses his bearded visage, and he admits that, yeah, maybe it was too much to expect that this small town of 17,300 souls in southeastern Broward County could fail to notice the masked mannequin in the display window sporting a rubber zipsuit, handcuffs, and ball gag.

The townsfolk noticed all right. "It was lurid. That's the only word I can think of to describe it -- lurid," recalls Richard Lehman, owner and proprietor of Dick's Toys and Collectibles, located about 50 yards down the street from Newman's fetish emporium. David Best, owner of Bleep's Sub Shop, Newman's next-door neighbor, says, "I looked out the window one day, and my jaw dropped open. I saw what they'd done, and I said to myself -- well, you can imagine what I said to myself."

Now, nearly three months after launching the store, Newman and his wife and business partner, Denise Earlman, believe it was the store's word-of-mouth notoriety that caused city regulators to embark on a campaign to close the store, which Newman and Earlman affectionately named the Fetish Box. They allege the city has repeatedly cited the store for trumped-up offenses against arcane, seldom-enforced, and ambiguous sign ordinances.

"They're trying to shut us down," Newman charges, with some heat. "It's selective enforcement of the law."

The trouble started for the Fetish Box even before the first shipment of brightly colored whips -- "Actually, they're called floggers," Newman notes proudly -- had been hung in a feisty row on the wall behind the cash register. By the time the doors officially opened on Labor Day, Dania Chief Code Inspector William Johnson had already sent Newman's landlord a letter informing him that his tenant was violating a city ordinance restricting the size and placement of building signs. "WINDOW SIGNS ARE PROHIBITED," Johnson wrote in capital letters. "ALL WINDOW SIGNS MUST BE REMOVED." The letter gave the landlord seven days to comply.

Newman and Earlman weren't pleased. They had just spent $500 having the two windows painted with the name of the business in two-foot-high Gothic letters. The windows also bore a partial listing of the store's wares -- "Novelties," "Leather," "Videos," "Latex," and "PVC;" a blue-and-red neon "Open" sign; and another sign warning that no one under the age of 18 would be admitted.

Now it appears they spent their money on nothing. "I couldn't believe it. It was unreal," Newman recalls.

Adding to his ire was the fact that hardly a business in the neighborhood didn't have at least one or two signs painted, hung, or taped on a window somewhere. And many have more than just a couple of the ostensibly illegal signs.

For example the Fetish Box's immediate neighbor to the east -- a liquor store operating out of the front parlor of the Dania Beach Hotel -- has at least two dozen round, multicolored price tags hanging in its windows advertising numerous beer and wine specials. Around the corner on Federal Highway sits Jaxson's Ice Cream Parlor, a landmark eatery boasting twelve magazine endorsements lined up inside the front window along with a picture of the owner and a full menu. Two doors down from Jaxson's is Block Jewelers, where six large neon signs fill the front plate-glass window. At night the light from "Jewelry Repairs," "Custom Work," "Title Transfers," "Auto Tags," "Checks Cashed," and "Money Orders" illuminates the sidewalk.

Thinking there must be some mistake, Newman researched the Dania sign codes, but what he learned didn't assuage his anger; it inflamed it. In addition to banning window signs, the Dania building code also prohibits any advertising painted directly on an exterior wall of a business operating in the Downtown Dania Redevelopment District, which stretches two miles from Griffin Road in the north down to Stirling Road and encompasses all businesses within three blocks of either side of Federal Highway.

Although the Fetish Box doesn't now, and never did, have advertising painted directly on its exterior walls, all Newman had to do was step out his front door and turn left to see the painted words "Hotel," "Liquors," Lounge," and "Pirates" crawling vertically down the facade of the corner Pirates Hotel in pale-pink painted letters 24 inches high. And if he looked straight ahead, he would be confronted with the words "The Fish Grill" painted directly on the wall of the restaurant across the street.

"They made us take all our signs down, when everywhere you look there are violations," says Earlman.

To illustrate the point, Newman stands outside the front door of the Fetish Box on a recent afternoon and turns in a perfect half circle, from east to west, with his outstretched arm pointing from one building to the next. As he rotates, he offers a clipped commentary on the state of sign compliance in the neighborhood. "See there? Painted wall sign -- illegal. There. Another painted wall sign -- illegal. There. Window sign -- illegal."

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