Buddy, Can You Spare A Sign?


Over the years, the City of Park Ridge has acquired a bit of a reputation, at least in some quarters, as being “unfriendly to business.”  That label tends to come from business people and real estate developers, and seems to be directed at impediments presented by our local laws and by the conduct of some of our City officials, both appointed and elected.

While we’re not sure exactly how justified that reputation is generally, it proved to be spot-on when the Enopi Learning Center recently tried to obtain City approval to install an illuminated sign over the entry to its business., which has been operating out of the second-floor offices above Pines Store for Men at the corner of Prospect and Summit since last November.

Enopi markets itself as an after-school math, reading and writing tutoring center for children ages 4-14.  It has been operating out of the second-floor offices above Pines Store for Men since last November.  Entry is gained through a recessed doorway adjacent to Pines’ northern-most display window.    

As best as we can tell, Enopi wanted to install a sign flush with the building’s façade at the top of its recessed entry, in front of what appears to be several square feet of painted door framing/trim – but which formerly was a working transom that (according to an e-mail from the building’s manager) has been non-functioning and painted over since at least 1989.

But because Pines already had its own sign on that same side of the building, Enopi’s owner needed to obtain a variance from the one-sign-per-side limitations of Section 14.6 F. 1 of the City’s Zoning Code.  

So Enopi applied for a sign variance, which was approved by the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) at its April 7th meeting after 2 previous hearings in January and February.  Enopi also earned the approval of the Appearance Commission following two times on that body’s agenda, which meant that the two principal appointed bodies charged with enforcing the sign provisions of our Zoning Code had given Enopi’s sign the thumbs up.

On May 2, the City Council voted 6 (Alds. Sweeney, Smith, Raspanti, Knight, Bernick & Maloney) to 1 (Ald. DiPietro) to reject DiPietro’s request to defer the first reading of that sign variance ordinance; and although the minutes of that meeting reveal no actual vote having been taken to approve the variance on first-reading, the variance nevertheless was moved ahead for a second (and final) reading at the May 16th meeting. 

That’s when Park Ridge became “unfriendly” to Enopi.

Resident zoning “activists” Judy Barclay and Pat Livensparger voiced their objections to the sign, arguing that a second variance was needed because the sign would partially cover a “wall opening” – in violation of Section 14.6 F. 3 of the Zoning Code, which states: “No wall sign shall cover…wholly or partially, any wall opening.”

When confronted with those objections, City Attorney Everette “Buzz” Hill began tap dancing.  He noted that our Zoning Code (rewritten only a few years ago by a “blue-ribbon” committee that included Barclay, and that was guided by a well-paid zoning consultant) doesn’t even define “wall opening,” an omission which leaves that term “imprecise” according to Hill.  Buzz also backtracked from the written opinion previously provided to the City by his colleague, Kathie T. Henn, that “the proposed sign conforms with Section 14.6 F. 3 and an additional variance is not required.”

Hill’s advice to the Council?  A “wall opening…is whatever you say it is.”

Armed with that insight, the Council denied Enopi’s sign variance by a 4 (Alds. DiPietro, Raspanti, Knight and Bernick) to 3 (Alds. Sweeney, Smith and Maloney) vote – presumably because the majority agreed with Barclay and Livensparger that either the recessed doorway or the transom was a “wall opening” that required a variance of its own.  So Enopi’s owner must now go back into the Twilight Zone of the City’s zoning process and apply for variance number two which, even if it’s granted, will likely mean another few months of operation without a sign.

Why did it take the City six months, two board/commission decisions and two full-Council votes before the owner of Enopi was finally told by the City Attorney – in an almost-backhanded fashion – that his sign would require a second variance? 

Let’s start with the fact that our Zoning Code “re-write” several years ago appears to have produced a Code so half-baked that dispositive terms like “wall opening” are not even defined, making their interpretation and application little more than a crap-shoot.

If that’s not bad enough, we’ve got at least two City boards/commissions which don’t seem to understand the terms of the Code they are empowered to interpret and enforce, but which nevertheless seem comfortable making decisions about that Code without the advice of the City’s legal counsel.

Then again, advice of counsel can be a decidedly mixed bag when law partners from the same firm, serving collectively as our “City Attorney,” can’t seem to sing from the same law book on issues such as this.  

All of which raise the question: “Is this any way to run a City?”

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