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Aldermanic panel slaps 9-month moratorium on small digital signs

A large billboard Kennedy  |  Sun-Times Library

A large billboard on the Kennedy | Sun-Times Library

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Updated: August 25, 2013 6:26AM

The City Council’s Zoning Committee on Tuesday slapped a nine-month moratorium on small digital signs popping up in Chicago neighborhoods without approval from local aldermen.

Championed by Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) with support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the moratorium will not impact the 34 massive electronic billboards about to go up on land adjacent to Chicago area expressways.

It would be confined to signs 100 square feet or less and would remain in place until April 2014.

That will give the City Council time to draft new regulations that give local aldermen more control.

“These sign companies are now trying to submit ordinances directly to the clerk’s office to circumvent aldermanic review and community input because they know these signs are a nuisance. They’re extremely bright and they can be very disruptive,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th).

“These companies … want to put out as many signs as they possibly can because it’s about revenue without any regard for disrupting the quality of life within a community.”

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said he, too, has been “struggling with” an influx of digital signs that fall under the 100-square-foot benchmark.

“That’s done by design because the city code … is silent and does not give aldermen the authority to review and approve those signs,” he said.

Reilly predicted it would take several months to strike a balance between sign regulations “fair to the industry” that are also sensitive to local residents.

“I can assure you, if you live directly across the street from one of these digital display signs — even if it’s under 100 square feet — that’ll keep you up at night literally. And each of us get complaints,” he said.

Buildings Commissioner Mike Merchant said the nine-month moratorium will give the city and an “aldermanic sign task force” time to study the “public health, safety and quality-of-life impact” that small digital signs have on Chicago neighborhoods.

“This reasonable moratorium will allow those discussions to continue without a continued influx of additional dynamic signs of 100 square feet or less in our neighborhoods,” Merchant said.

Last month, the Transportation Committee blocked efforts by Digital GreenSigns to put up 100-square-foot digital signs in three wards whose local aldermen object.

A few days later, Emanuel sided with the City Council.

“Aldermen are upset because residents are upset. They don’t want this type of image in their community,” the mayor said then.

“I’ve been clear that our neighborhoods should have a different standard. I want to be clear about that standard and the direction we’re gonna have.”

Emanuel said aldermen have a “role to play in what happens in their community” and sign companies should not be allowed to go around them in an aggressive push for digital advertising dollars.

“There’s got to be a proper structure — not only about how we go forward, but also a big concern I have [is] we have an extensive amount of signs that are up in the city that are up there illegally. And we need to do a better job of enforcement,” the mayor said.

Currently, city approval is not needed for signs less than 100 square feet and more than 100 feet away from the nearest residence.

Over the next nine months, City Hall will decide whether to increase that distance on grounds that digital signs can be seen from far away.

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