A billboard introducing highway motorists to Forest Park will be given a more prominent position on the village’s skyline thanks to a settlement that allows the height of the sign to go up by more than 45 percent.
The double-faced sign just west of the Harlem Avenue exit on the Eisenhower Expressway is owned by Paramount Media Group in Naperville. In 2007 the company complained to the village that an Oak Park auto dealership had put up a towering display of cars that obstructs motorists’ views of the billboard on its east side. The company asked that it be allowed to raise the height of billboard from 75 to 110 feet. Zoning codes prohibit the change and the council said in April 2007 that it would not grant an exception.
But at their July 28 council meeting, commissioners voted 4-1 to allow the height increase in exchange for $30,000. The deal was reached in response to Paramount’s 2007 federal lawsuit claiming that its constitutional right to free speech had been abridged.
“Forest Park’s ordinance, which restricts the height of billboards … has the effect of suppressing and chilling constitutionally protected expressive conduct,” Paramount argued in its suit. “Forest Park’s ordinance restricting the height of billboards violates the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
The $30,000 received by the municipality will be used to replace the freestanding sign at the Howard Mohr Community Center with an electronic one, according to the agreement.
Paramount’s new, taller billboard may also include digital advertising, but only on the side facing east. The company agreed not to run ads for “adult entertainment” businesses on the sign.
Commissioner Mike Curry said the restrictions in the agreement are important to preventing the village from becoming “Forest Las Vegas Park, Ill.”
A question of taste
Curry was chairman of the zoning board in 2007 when the group was asked to make a favorable recommendation to the council regarding the sign’s height. Then and now, said Curry, he is unhappy with having a 110-foot billboard in Forest Park. However, the settlement restricts the type of advertising that’s allowed, and guarantees that an electronic sign won’t be on the side that faces the village, he said.
“When you settle, you don’t get 100 percent of what you want,” Curry said. “That’s why they call it a settlement.”
Shortly after Paramount’s 2007 request was rebuffed by the council, the billboard featured an ad for a gentlemen’s club in south suburban Ford Heights. Ron Broida, an attorney for Paramount owner David Quas, said after the July 28 meeting that his client was unable to sell the space to national advertisers because of the billboard’s obstructed view.
“It’s not a normal advertiser of my client’s,” Broida said of the strip club.
Commissioner Martin Tellalian voted against settling the case and said he does not find the restrictive covenants at all appealing.
“I don’t like the electronic billboard, whether it’s facing Oak Park or Forest Park,” Tellalian said. “If we don’t like electronic billboards, why would we press that on a neighbor?”
Tellalian said he’s also worried the billboard, which is at 7209 Harrison St., will be an eyesore to residents of a nearby condo and townhouse project that’s under construction. The commissioner said the settlement is “one of the poorer decisions” the council has made, and even more so because of the cash exchange.
“I don’t like the payoff,” Tellalian said of the $30,000 to be collected by the municipality. “We’d all like a little extra funding, but we sold a variance for $30,000.”
Moreover, because the owner of the billboard has contributed several thousand dollars to the mayor’s campaign in recent years, residents have reason to question why Calderone took a leading role in the settlement negotiations, said Tellalian.
Mayor Anthony Calderone said he helped get the ball rolling on the settlement agreement following the first deposition in the suit. As attorneys for the two sides negotiated terms, Calderone was kept abreast of the developments for the purposes of providing input and to relay matters to the other council members.
Calderone said it’s not unusual for him to assume this role when lawsuits against the village are being negotiated, in part because such work falls outside the village administrator’s job description.
“Lawsuits against the village are not day-to-day operations,” Calderone said.
Between 2001 and 2007, Calderone received $3,200 in campaign donations from Paramount Media Group and its owner, according to state records. At the April 2007 council meeting the mayor was part of a unanimous vote to deny the billboard owner’s zoning request to increase the height.
“Only the mayor knows if that colors his decision,” Tellalian said of the campaign contributions. Taking money from people who want to do business with the village will inevitably fuel speculation of special treatment, he said.
Calderone denied that the campaign money influenced the settlement talks in any way.
“That’s absurd. My campaign committee does not accept campaign contributions in exchange for any favors,” Calderone said.
Village Administrator Mike Sturino did not make a specific recommendation to the council on whether it should approve the settlement proposal, but said there are pros and cons to either decision. Litigation can be costly and there are no guaranteed outcomes, said Sturino. The village would have to pay the first $50,000 in legal fees and court costs before its insurance kicks.
“We had a very good case, but we have a very high insurance deductible,” Sturino said.