Letter: Church Sign Request Reveals Significant Flaws in City’s Interpretation of Zoning Code
Complete failure to respect zoning codes indicates a high level of rubber stamping has been going on in Elmhurst for years.
The recent application by Redeemer Lutheran Church for a digital reader-board sign to be placed on its adjacent property, bounded by St. Charles, Kenilworth and Arlington, in front of the Redeemer Center, has generated significant opposition from neighbors. I will leave it to others to comment on how the church leadership has addressed the neighbors.
The purpose of this letter is to point out some glaring inconsistencies in how the city has mistakenly interpreted its own zoning code, and even more importantly, how the residents of the entire city have been let down by city staff, the members of the Zoning and Planning Commission, and their predecessors.
A quick check of the Zoning code shows that the only type of informational sign allowed in a residentially zoned neighborhood is defined as a “bulletin board sign.” The definition of the bulletin board sign within the code is also clear and concise:
Bulletin Board Sign (Permanent):
A sign that identifies an institution or organization on whose premises it is located and that contains only the name of the institution or organization, the name or names of persons connected with it, and greetings, announcements of events, or activities occurring at the institution, or similar messages.
Nowhere in the definition of bulletin board sign does the code allow for an electronic, changing copy, digital reader-board or “electronic message center.” Indeed the code has provisions and definitions for these types of signs. They are “Changing Sign (Automatic),” which are allowed in other zoning applications—i.e. commercially zoned areas. Changing signs are not permitted in residentially zoned areas because the intent was clearly not to allow them at all.
Starting with the Park District application for a digital sign at York and Cayuga in 2000 under a conditional use permit, and continuing through the most recent approval for Visitation School in October 2011, there have been a total of six locations approved that are in residentially zoned areas. The interesting fact is that the applicants, in most cases, hybridized (or bastardized) the language in the application by writing that the approval was for a bulletin board sign/LED message center under a conditional use. By attaching the additional language—LED message center or other variations—the applicant misconstrued what was proper and what was not.
Virtually none of these applications should have been for conditional uses. They should have been applications for variances—a much more stringent process. To confuse matters further, several of the applications do request variances for height, which is confined to 5 feet overall in residentially zoned areas.
As an additional failure by city staff and the Zoning Commission and all involved in the review process, at least one of the applications is so sophomoric as to make the city look like a collection of fools.
One application question asks: “Provide a detailed Project Impact Statement which addresses the impact of the Conditional Use on the neighboring land and the community, and the public need for the particular use on the subject property.” The applicant responds with a handwritten statement: “The sign should have no particular impact on the neighborhood.”
Folks, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a detailed project impact statement to me, and yet all of the various parts of city staff and the zoning process approved this, and a digital reader board was approved.
This opposition to the sign at St Charles and Kenilworth is not about denying a church its rights. It is about asking the city to acknowledge and correct its mistakes of the past and to adhere to the zoning laws as they exist. It is about holding paid staff and officials accountable—to know the codes, to know the laws, and to require a standard of care and diligence that we are entitled to as tax-paying citizens.
The city has made a mistake six times in the last 12 years with respect to this issue. There are more than 35 additional locations in residentially zoned neighborhoods in the city of Elmhurst that could ask for these same signs if the city continues to ignore its own rules. This is an embarrassment.
This is a difficult letter for me to write as I count a number of the officials and predecessors that I am being critical of as friends and as professionals whose skills I respect. Unfortunately, the complete failure to respect the zoning codes for this particular issue leads me to consider that there is shoddy review and interpretation going into many of the other critical issues the city faces.
This does not bode well for the taxpayers. If the council and their various committees are reliant on the opinions and expertise given by staff and by commissioners, then minimally, those same bodies must do some serious introspection as to the level of rubber stamping that appears to have been going on for a number of years.
From May 2009 through December 2011, a good deal of my job has been to oversee construction and obtain sign permits in conjunction with the re-imaging of just over 400 automotive service facilities around the country, from San Diego to South Burlington, Vt., to Kileen, Texas. I have been in front of numerous review boards, commissions, committees, councils and paid staff. I have not seen anywhere such a breakdown in code interpretation and lack of attention to the filings by a city as I have seen here.
—Craig M. Nelson, Elmhurst