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Clock ticking for Downers Grove businesses not yet in compliance with sign ordinance

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 12:02 p.m. CDT

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DOWNERS GROVE – Owners of 270 properties violating the village's new sign ordinance received letters last month notifying them to meet compliance by May, or see possible fines.

The mandatory compliance follows a nine-year grace period given to property owners following the ordinance's passage in 2005.

So far, 88 percent of properties now conform to the ordinance, according to village staff, but 345 non-complying signs still lay across 270 properties.

Mayor Martin Tully said the high rate of voluntary compliance shows the new rules, which require smaller, lower signs further from the curb, among other requirements, have not been an undue burden on business.

The grace period was originally set at seven years, he said, before a two-year-extension, because the average sign is typically replaced after seven years in the normal course of business.

He also praised the noticeably improved look of Ogden Avenue and other busy streets where the new rules have improved the village's general aesthetics.

Though, for some long-time businesses, the expense of replacing a sign is daunting.

"It's an expense I know was a longtime coming, but I'm still not exactly happy with it," said Bohemian Garden Restaurant General Manager Joe Wojdyla.

The restaurant's distinctive sign at 980 E. 75th St. was in place when Wojdyla's parents bought the 27-year-old restaurant in 1995. It is bigger than the new ordinance allows.

He said a new sign might cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

He's also concerned a smaller sign will give a competitive disadvantage. The family hopes to work with the village to see what variances or other options might be available.

"I'm on the border of Downers Grove – across 75th Street is Darien," he said. "And Darien is not requiring their businesses to change their signs."

Village Planner Stan Popovich said staff makes site visits regularly to help property owners understand the new rules and find possible solutions.

"What we want to do is assist with compliance, and improve the aesthetics of the community," Village Spokesman Doug Kozlowski said.

Tully echoed Popovich's comments about working with individual property owners to find solutions.

He added that, in a general sense, the village could be open to modifying the ordinance in the future, especially taking into consideration that different business corridors could possibly warrant different rules.

"Nobody said it was carved in stone," he said. "We do recognize that not every segment of town is the same."

The ordinance began as a look at large, decrepit signs on Ogden Avenue in the early 2000s. The conversation eventually grew into committees and public hearings and the village-wide ordinance now in place.

DuPage County Board Member Brian Krajewski was Downers Grove mayor in 2005, and said he voted against the ordinance. He described it as another burden on businesses already paying the new stormwater fee and recovering from the recession.

He also takes issue with one-size-fits-all rules for signs across disparate business corridors.

"Right now, the village needs to be as least-restrictive on businesses as they can," he said.

The sign at his law office on Warren Avenue does not meet the setback requirements, he said. He plans to file for a zoning variance, which is not free – it's a $477 application fee for commercial, and $398 for residential properties.

The ordinance affects property owners other than businesses as well.

School District 99 signs at both high schools are not in compliance with the ordinance and will need to be replaced this year.

The Main Street sign at North High School and two signs at South High School are all too big, too tall and too close to the curb. Though, to bring the Main Street sign into compliance with the setback requirement would place it inside the school. The district will likely request a zoning variance to place the sign closer to the property line.

District 99 has planned to spend about $54,000 to replace the sign at North High School, and $70,000 to knock down the two signs at South and replace it with one new sign.

The district has also shown interest in adding digital displays to the new signs, similar to several neighboring high schools, to promote school activities and other announcements. The village's sign ordinance bars those types of signs.

District 99 spokesperson Jill Browning said the district is still in talks with the village regarding its various options.

Tully said simple zoning variances would not allow the school district to erect a digital sign and that the ordinance itself would need to be amended.

Fines for non-complying signs can range from $75 to $750, the standard code violation penalties in the village.

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