By Anna Lothson
Oak Park adopted a sign code nearly four years ago that put roughly 370 signs out of compliance, but it doesn't go into effect until March 2014.
With that deadline just more a year away, many business and building owners are growing more concerned. And that's making the village board question whether the 2009 decision needs to be amended.
An item intended to be a brief update on the village board's Feb 19 agenda as part of the village manager's report, turned into a full-blown discussion about potentially revisiting certain changes in the 33-page code. Trustee Bob Tucker said the discussion went too in-depth for an agenda item and asked that the issue be brought back for more discussion.
But not before trustees vetted their concerns.
Village Planner Craig Failor reviewed the sign code process with the board and explained that public hearings were held prior to its adoption. When the code was approved, however, the board put in a five-year delay to give businesses a chance to come into compliance.
Fast forward four years, and hundreds haven't.
The original reason for the updated code was that Oak Park had two, one for the Downtown Oak Park business district and one for the rest of the village. The new code is a single document but divided into four overlay districts to address the unique character of each district — downtown, neighborhood, corridor and residential.
Although the code was approved in March 2009, businesses weren't reminded of the change until last March. Since then, Failor said he's received 77 responses with questions and concerns — out of 272 letters sent out for the roughly 370 signs in question. More than 1,500 signs were reviewed for compliance.
So far, two businesses have applied for variances, one of which has been approved and the other awaiting a final decision. In November 2012 a second wave of letters was sent out reminding businesses about compliance with the code. Failor said businesses that aren't in compliance will receive letters 60 days prior to when the code takes effect next March.
Any business can apply for a variance, but that process takes time and money.
In a phone interview, Feb. 22, Mike Fox, an Oak Park landlord and owner of the Carleton Hotel, said the process for a new sign that needed a variance took significant time. He sought a unique sign for his hotel that jutted out from the side of the building because of the unique street it sits on, he said.
He had to bring renderings, drawings and surveys about his new sign before the variance was approved. He didn't know some existing signs need a variance, but he's heard a lot of buzz about the sign code regulations.
As for building owners who choose to replace a new sign to replace one that is out of compliance, they would have to go through the building permit process to ensure it fits the new code.
Failor said the purpose of the sign code is to create a more aesthetically-pleasing "signscape" within the community. It also addresses potential safety risks, such as signs hung with chains that could detach from the building, or signs with flashing lights.
He's gotten mixed responses. Some merely asked for clarification on what needed to be done; others were upset about the changes. Of the non-compliant signs in question, Failor said, 42 properties had more than 25 percent window coverage, 55 because of chains, 20 because of too much information on the sign, and 26 because of signs on the sides of buildings without street frontage.
Of the 15 areas in the village receiving violation letters, the highest number were along Madison Street, which received 65 notices, and North Avenue. Other areas impacted include Roosevelt Road (35 notices), Lake Street (33), Chicago Avenue Corridor (24), Oak Park Avenue (18), and Harlem Avenue Corridor (15). The remaining streets — Garfield, Harrison, Marion, Austin and North boulevards, Maple Avenue and South Boulevard make up the remaining 45 violations.
Trustee John Hedges expressed the most concerns about the ordinance, questioning how the village can enforce something that many businesses may not be able to afford.
"I think it's something we have to think about. Some of these signs could be pretty expensive," he said. "I hate to be in a position to put a business out of business simply because they can't afford their sign."
Failor said they didn't have a plan to address that contingency yet. Trustee Ray Johnson suggested prioritizing the problems that need to be addressed instead of having a "one-shoe-fits-all approach," and making every violator change. The village, he said, should address the public safety issues first and decide the rest later.
Johnson also brought up the perception in the village that Oak Park is overregulated. He'd like to keep the process simple and address only what is needed.
"If it's a safety issue, let's get that fixed. If it's something else, let's come up with something new and extend the process. That is reasonable for this economy," Johnson said.
President David Pope said it's important that the code move forward, but it's worth reviewing if there could be an application process based solely on financial hardship. He also suggested extending the widow of time for signs that aren't a safety hazard.
Trustee Collette Lueck, however, questioned how the board or staff would approach a discretionary process.
"One thing that is challenging to us is that we have no idea what a sign would cost. We have no idea what a level of hardship would be," she said. "What's hardship for one might not be for another. … I don't think the process of setting exceptions is going to be easy to do."
Since the item was simply part of the village manager's report, no decision had to be made about potential changes. Trustees asked Failor to meet with the business districts and the Business Association Council to hear more opinions on how to move forward. It will likely come back soon to the village board as a discussion agenda item.