Two familiar tax-time fixtures may disappear from Hemet, California’s main drag now that the City Council has encouraged stricter enforcement of the city’s sign ordinance.

Each spring, drivers on Florida Avenue are greeted by someone in a bumblebee costume standing at San Jacinto Street and someone else dressed as the Statue of Liberty waving as they pass Harvard Street.

Both are promoting tax preparation businesses. Such costumed characters, as well as people holding advertising signs on sidewalks, have been banned in Hemet for years, but the city stopped enforcing parts of its sign ordinance in 2009 in an effort to boost business when the recession hit. That’s about to change, however. With the economy improving, and a new citywide sign ordinance adopted in May, the code enforcement department was given the go-ahead to more aggressively pursue violators.

The increase in handheld signs, sometimes referred to as human directionals, started with the housing boom of the mid 1990s.

Even after building stopped, a drive down Florida Avenue still could be akin to a trip along the Las Vegas
Strip, with people shaking signs advertising everything from medical exams to haircuts to cash for gold.

That has eased recently, in part because of a new ordinance that allows more options for businesses to post temporary signs, city administrators say.

Still, a drive along Florida last week featured human directionals promoting dental exams, taxi rides
and a going-out-of-business carpeting store.

Under the new directive, those types of advertisers will initially receive warnings from code enforcement officers. Additional violations will lead to fines, starting at $50 for a first violation, $100 for the second and $250 for subsequent violations in the next 12 months.

Enforcement could get sticky. Under city codes, people have the right to wear costumes in public, but not to advertise a specific business. They can legally hold signs with noncommercial messages, which are protected as free speech. That allows picketers to hold protest placards.

The city attorney determined that someone wearing a costume easily identifiable with a nearby business is advertising, prohibiting someone in a Ronald McDonald costume from waving people to the fast-food restaurant,for example.

Similar laws are in place in San Jacinto, Menifee, Murrieta, Temecula, Corona, Riverside and unincorporated areas of Riverside County. But, as in Hemet, enforcement is spotty, Community Development Director Deanna Elliano said. Mayor Larry Smith said there is a fine balance between being business-friendly and letting people skirt the law. He added that businesses pay a premium to be on Florida Avenue, and it’s unfair to let others station people with signs there and possibly steer customers away. His colleagues agreed, unanimously approving the crackdown.

“If we’re going to have a rule, we might as well enforce it,” Councilwoman Shellie Milne said. “Otherwise, don’t have a rule.”

Hemet’s new sign ordinance created categories for temporary signs, such as banners and portable signs,
allowing businesses to use them with proper permits, more than the previous rules allowed. Changes were made to rules about sign sizes, materials and how long they can be displayed.

The Hemet-San Jacinto Valley Chamber of Commerce was a key player in forming the new sign policy and President/CEO Andy Anderson said the members are pleased with the changes.The old law was unclear in some areas and too restrictive in others, he said.

“This ordinance cleans up a lot of the areas,” Anderson said. “The business community is pleased with the additional flexibility to the ordinance and additional clarification to gray areas. I’m pleased with the outcome. I haven’t had any negative response.”

By Craig Shultz, Staff Writer, The Press Enterprise