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?”

To read or post comments, click on title.

10 comments so far

How about a sign above the window?

If you look at the building, there’s a long cement piece going over the windows which probably had words caved in it and then later coverd up.

The business could probably carve their sign there.

No, this is no way to run a city. This is basic stuff and if I was the owner of Enopi I would be pissed.

But from your post, I can’t tell what the “wall opening” is that Enopi violated. Is it the alcove surrounding the door or is it the transom?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re not sure. And the comments from ZBA members, Ms. Barclay and Ms. Livensparger reflected in the minutes of the ZBA’s April 7th meeting don’t shed a whole lot of light on the issue: it’s unclear whether they are consistently talking about the transom itself or the “alcove” around the door.

Of course, it would have been helpful if the “blue ribbon” zoning re-write committee led by well-paid consultant Camiros Ltd. had added definitions for terms like “wall opening” to their re-write of the Zoning Code a few years ago.

STRONGLY agree! It is an embarrassment that a businessman of good will, with the advice of a lawyer, could: 1) spend months before the City’s Boards & Commissions; 2) secure recommendations from the City’s Boards & Commissions for the sign; 3) have the City Council insist that he hire another lawyer and spend more months before the City’s Boards & Commission in order for those Boards and Commissions to make a second recommendation that he receive permission for the sign..albeit for a different reason. This, in itself, is evidence that the City’s approval procedures are Byzantine.

The City Council had the authority to cut through its own red tape in order to achieve an objective that everyone recognizes is desirable. Instead of doing so, the Council elected to harass the businessman by insisting that he spend more money and jump through more hoops in order to achieve what he has already accomplished. The Council’s actions are inconsistent with any understanding of good governance. There was absolutely no public benefit from the action of the City Council.

No doubt the aldermen can cite the maze of city regulations as CYA to justify their actions. But doing so would support the position taken by PublicWatchdog.

There is another point that should probably made: The owner of the business in question is an ethnic minority. I ascribe no racial malice to the aldermen. But, there are people who would not be so generous toward the City Council. The aldermen need to be alert. They need to be aware that their actions could result in Park Ridge acquiring a reputation that could hurt us all.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We concur in your comments, save for one: “The City Council had the authority to cut through its own red tape in order to achieve an objective that everyone recognizes is desirable.”

While we agree that allowing Enopi to install its sign is a desirable objective, we believe the principle of “a government of laws and not of men” articulated by John Adams in the 7th of his Novanglus Essays is worth upholding even when those laws are less than optimal.

And we hope the Council works to correct the “imprecise” language of Section 14.6 F 1 of the Zoning Code, pronto.

So Mr. Godfrey you say: “The City Council had the authority to cut through its own red tape in order to achieve an objective that everyone recognizes is desirable.” All well and good… BUT where does it stop?

It’s fine to suggest the council cut through the red tape for a mere sign BUT what say you when the council starts cutting through the red tape on contracts, capital projects, hiring and the like? Where does it stop??

The problem here is that the council was served up a matter that should not have made it to them in the manner it did. Best case, maybe conservatively in some’s opinion, the Enopi guy should have come before the council with the additional variance.

And frankly that you even mention the ethnic background of the Enopi guy is insulting. How does that even enter into the discussion?

EDITOR’S NOTE: As to your last comment, Mr. Godfrey seems to have been focusing on perception instead of reality: he made it a point of not accusing the Council of any racism, but simply warned of how the Council’s actions might be perceived in such a situation.

If perception is what he was concerned about, with those who would be “less generous”, the horse has already left the barn!

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those inclined toward being “less generous,” the horse hasn’t seen the inside of the barn since the Dred Scott decision.

Unfortunately this is a waste of the city council time to have to vote on something that should have been resolved at a much lower level within the city government.

So many real issues that are on the horizon, it is too bad that the Park Ridge City government is not a better run entity.

Anon: 6:13

It’s self inflicted from the top (elected officals) down. Why deal with real issues when we can fiddle over thsi stuff. On the punt return why should I bother with the big guys when I can block the punter?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Interesting comment. Can you identify three or four of “the big guys” who you would like the City Council to “block”? And, for extra credit, can you describe the kind of “block” you would like to see?

Gee Nero I don’t know. I got planes flying over my house every couple minutes and my basement is almost dry from last weeks flood (again). But let’s spend our time discussing whether or not a guy can put a sign up over his business.

EDITOR’S NOTE: And you’re going to continue having them flying over your house, Skeezix, because Chicago spent $500 million for that new runway and nobody – not Chicago, not Cook County, not the State of Illnois, not its senators and congressmen, not the FAA, not the airlines, not the EPA, and not most of our neighboring communities – give a rat’s derriere about you or anybody else in this town. What about that don’t you understand?

Might be time to spring for overhead sewers or check valves. Or you can wait another month or so for the City’s flood consultants to come up with their report and then contact Flood Control Task Force members Lou Arrigoni, Daniel Carroll, Gale Fabisch, John Humm, Kim Jones, Patricia Lofthouse, Bob Mack, Joe Saccomanno, and/or Steve Tolan and tell them whether you want to spend the $40-50-60-70 million it will cost just to put a decent dent into the flooding problem.

Maybe true, but it wasn’t Lou Arrigoni, Daniel Carroll, Gale Fabisch, John Humm, Kim Jones, Patricia Lofthouse, Bob Mack, Joe Saccomanno, and/or Steve Tolan who came to my door to discuss flooding issues when they were running. It was Frimark, Cox, Wsol, Maloney and Schmidt amongst others. Yet I here nothing from them after they get in.

EDITOR’S NOTE: It works this way, Skeezix: Those members of the Flood Control Task Force, several of whom have many years of experience dealing with flood issues and water management, will be evaluating the consultant’s report and recommending a flood control program to the Mayor and the City Council. So if you want to talk to people who will be doing the heavy lifting on flood control solutions, those are the folks to talk to. Got it?

Frimark did nothing about flooding, other than walk around during floods looking for photo ops. Schmidt created (and Wsol supported) the task force shortly after Schmidt was elected in 2009; and Maloney endorsed the task force process as a candidate in the April election.

Yeah Right. Call it what you want. I’ll give Maloney a pass because he’s only been there a month, but Frimark, Cox, Wsol, and Schmidt all talked a great game and still nothing has happened. Task Force equals “Pass the buck”.

And back to my original point, hours on a stinking a sign and no movement on the flooding.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Frimark and Cox did nothing about flooding. Schmidt created the task force to provide a level of citizen involvement and expertise in dealing with the paid consultant, Burke Engineering – which makes plenty of sense considering that task force member Gale Fabisch by himself, and Bob Mack by himself, each have many times the water engineering experience than the mayor and all the aldermen from the current and the previous City Councils combined. Which is what the taxpayers deserve when we’re looking at what could easily be a $50-100 million-plus project.

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