Dania Whips Out a New Sign Ordinance

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."

According to Dania City Manager Mike Smith, Newman's legal judgment is flawless. All of those signs -- the painted wall signs, the price tags in the windows, the neon signs behind plate glass -- are indeed illegal, Smith says. And they will be taken down. In good time.

Dania's current sign ordinances went into effect in 1993, but Smith says enforcement was put off because chasing illegal signs was a low priority for the understaffed code-enforcement branch.

"This is a process that happens incrementally," he explains. "Some of these people have had those signs up for years, and we need to give them time. We're giving people 90 days to come into compliance."

If Newman feels he's being picked on, he's wrong, Smith responds. The reason the Fetish Box was hit sooner than existing businesses and given less time to comply was the fact that it was a new store. "He should have known the law before he came into town," Smith says. "He should have done some research."

Newman asserts that he did research the law. "I had a lawyer. I looked into these things. I'm not stupid." But the research, he admits, focused more on compliance with zoning and licensing regulations than on sign ordinances. The only time it came up was when his lawyer told him the store would need a sign refusing entrance to persons under 18 years old. So he put one up. Then along came Johnson, the code inspector, who ordered him to take it down.

"The only thing that makes sense is that they don't want me to succeed," he fumes.

Smith admits there was a screwup regarding the sign keeping kids out of the store, but he denies anyone targeted the Fetish Box. "Yeah, it seems he got caught between two conflicting ordinances," he admits. "And we'll have to look into that. But he took it as attacking him for his line of business, and that's just not true."

If not, David Best was misinformed.
Best, the owner of the Bleep's Sub Shop, located next door to the Fetish Box, started getting anxious last month when Newman was raising hell about his neighbors' signs being out of compliance. Best had reason to worry; his sub shop has both lettered signs and murals painted directly on its exterior walls, and he knows these signs don't conform to the letter of the law.

Earlier this month Best tapped a back channel in the city administration -- a secretary in the code-enforcement branch -- to find out whether he had anything to worry about. She told him no: the Fetish Box was the real target. "They're definitely keying in on his business," Best says. "Do you think they watch the hardware store as closely as they do the Fetish Box? Of course not."

Other storeowners wouldn't tolerate the kind of peremptory treatment Newman and Earlman received from code enforcers, he says. "Tell the city to go take a look around this town. Everybody's got signs!" he says in his own defense. "How is the city going to go around and tell people they can't advertise. They'll all leave!"

Smith denies that anyone on his staff would have made such a statement as Best alleges, and if they did, "They didn't know what they were talking about."

Several local community leaders think Newman and Earlman could have saved themselves a world of trouble if they'd only taken the time to sit down and get to know their neighbors before plunking down a store such as this 50 yards from the main intersection of town.

Dania is the type of town where "you see a kid walking down the street, and immediately you know whose kid it is," says Helen Udell, chairperson of the Dania Human Relations Board and a member of the Dania Improvement Board. "It's a place where the members of civic committees get together and pick up trash along Federal Highway several times a year.

"Dania is a conservative town," she notes. "We don't even wear low-neck dresses to parties. And I think the trouble starts with the word 'fetish.' I think that turns people off."

Plus, Newman and Earlman happened to arrive at the worst time possible, says Patty Hart, a local realtor who has lived in Dania almost all her life. This year the city is preparing an extensive application for a public-private program associated with the Florida Main Street Project, which provides seed money to cities looking to revitalize their urban cores. The additional funds involved could be substantial; two years ago the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, received a total of $2.6 million from a similar program, Udell says. That kind of money -- or even something close to it -- would make quite a difference in Dania, where the general fund is only $14 million.  

Last month Udell visited the store to see for herself what it was like. She was pleasantly surprised. "It's really not bad or trashy at all. It's very sophisticated."

Still, if she could sit down and give Newman and Earlman a friendly word of advice, it would be this: "In America you can certainly try to fight city hall if you choose, you can certainly try. But I think it would be cheaper in the long run to just comply with what's being asked of them.

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