Destin display regs guide 'character of the community'

Matt Algarin
As part of the city's land development code, outdoor merchandise displays like these must meet specific regulations to preserve the "character of the community."

As Walton County officials debate how much is too much when it comes to outdoor merchandise displays at businesses, city leaders in Destin have had an ordinance on the books since 2005.

"When a local government goes down these roads it's to help with the character of the community and the aesthetics of the community," said Ken Gallander, the city's community development director.

The city's land development code has a section relating to "special design criteria," which regulates how a number of items, such as automobiles, boats, mobile homes and merchandise displays, can be used to drum up business.

This section of the city's code was "designed to preserve, protect and enhance the economic vitality and character" of Destin. The regulations apply to all developments located within 20 of the city's 27 zoning districts.

Discussions in Walton County have been based on the number of businesses displaying a variety of products outside of their storefronts, with items ranging from RedBox movie rentals and water noodles to inflatable beach toys, ice machines and propane sales displays.

As a Destin City Councilman and Executive Director of the Walton County Tourist Development Council, Jim Bagby, who has been outspoken about "visual clutter" in the past, is very familiar with the talks in Walton County. He said Walton County already has an ordinance in place, but businesses "keep violating it."

"The way I look at it, both Walton County and the city of Destin could do a better job enforcing the rules they have," he said. "Destin's rules, I wish they were a little more stringent. I look at the high-end resorts, places like Pinehurst, and they are very well regulated when it comes to signs and such and are very aware of the visual aspect of things."

The outdoor storage and display of materials, equipment and merchandise must meet four specific requirements in Destin.

·         Outdoor storage shall be screened from view from the right of way and adjacent properties by an opaque wall, fence or landscaping of sufficient maturity, density and height to screen such areas from view.

·         Merchandise displays customarily used outdoors such as pools, spas, lawn furniture, concrete fixtures and other similar items are limited to one of each specific design.

·         Inoperable motor vehicles must be stored within screened areas and must be kept on the same site of motor vehicle repair facilities and motor vehicle service centers that are performing the repairs. Inoperable vehicles cannot be stored onsite for more than 60 consecutive day.

·         The storage or display of merchandise or new or used motor vehicles, boats, recreational vehicles, mobile homes, and other vehicles is permitted outside of approved storage or display areas, as designated on approved plans. Storage and display areas cannot be located in areas that are designated for landscaping, swales, or retention areas used for stormwater management.

For his part, Councilman Tuffy Dixon told The Log that he understands a business’ desire to advertise, but he also understands the importance of keeping a clean appearance in the city.

"I think we do a good job of keeping up with things like ribbon banners and all of those $1.99 blow-up floats," he said. "It's a balance between some restraint and allowing a business to promote itself."

While city regulations specifically relate to merchandise displays and outdoor storage, the codes' language still leaves some questions for city planners.

There are businesses, such as McGuire’s, Malibu Jack's Cafe and Surroundings on The Harbor, that use vehicles to help advertise their business. So, the question lies as to whether these vehicles are "signs" or "merchandise," and whether they fall under the sign code or the outdoor storage and display code.

"It's a gray area," Gallander said. "We have sat down as a staff with the business owners to discuss this."

The issue will come before the city council again at some point in the near future as city leaders discuss updating the sign code.