The village’s Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously rejected a sign company’s plea to install an electronic billboard below its existing billboard near the Desplaines Avenue ramp on I-290.
The sign had twice been ordered turned off by the village, once in February and again in May. But attorney William Niro, representing Chicago-based J&B Signs, argued that the sign was being treated differently than others due to the fact that it was electronic.
“This sign has been increased and decreased [in size] a number of times,” he said. “I think you’re treating it differently because it’s a non-paper sign.”
He explained that, in compliance with Illinois Department of Transportation regulations, the sign would not include any moving images, scrolling text, or flashing light. He described it as “sort of like a slide show,” explaining that it would merely display ads that would alternate each 30 seconds with a three second break between ads.
“It’s really sort of the next generation of those tri-faced signs we’ve all seen,” he said. The company, he said, had received permits from IDOT for the sign. Patricia Hefner of J&B Signs said that the company had applied for additional sign space in February and paid a fee to the village.
Building Department Director Michael Boyle denied this claim, stating that “they have gotten no approval to erect this sign, and the reference they’re making is to an annual payment.” He said he later learned that the company had paid extra to include a new sign, but that no permits had been issued.
Zoning Board chairman Michael Curry questioned Niro’s assertion that the electronic sign was analogous to past expansions of the existing paper sign, which has been in place upwards of 20 years.
“It appears there’s a gap between the two signs ” how is this one sign again?” he asked. Niro answered that the state treats two signs on one pole the same as one sign as long as the maximum allowed square footage is not exceeded. He acknowledged that the company had never placed a double-stacked sign at this location in the past.
Responding to a question from zoning board member Austin Zimmer, Boyle said that the company would have, in fact, been required to seek village permission if it had wanted to add another paper sign to the billboard.
“I don’t think it’s just the fact that it’s digital, I think it’s the change to the size of the sign [that’s an issue]” said Zimmer.
Board member William McKenzie agreed, stating that “this is a major change to the billboard. You’re making a major change to a non-conforming piece and that is why you’re here,” he said.
Board member Jolyn Crawford said she simply found the sign to be unattractive. “You can double stack a burger but not a sign,” she said.
The board was also unmoved by Niro’s assertion that by shutting the sign down, the village had caused contracts with six advertisers to be breached, and prevented ads including public service announcements for the American Heart Association and the Ronald McDonald Children’s Hospital.
“This is not just a commerce enterprise,” he said. “J&B is working with IDOT to use digital signs like these to provide safety alerts.” He also noted that several Forest Park business owners surveyed stated an interest in placing their ads among the rotation displayed on the sign, which is significantly cheaper than traditional billboard advertising.
Curry also noted that the sign posed a public safety concern, asking for documentation showing that digital signs do not distract drivers. “The first time I drove by the sign, it distracted me,” he said.
Niro sited research used by IDOT from studies conducted at universities including Villanova and Virginia Tech which concluded that the signs do not pose a safety risk, stating that “I think we all have to rely on IDOT [for public safety information].”
He noted that the state and federal government use electronic signs to deliver safety messages to motorists in emergency situations.
Others disagreed with his assessment. “Off road signs that are changing are going to distract people,” said Forest Park resident Jerry Webster. “You can come up with a whole bunch of people who will say otherwise but I know what I see.”