CITY HALL — Are bright digital signs just as distracting to drivers as texting? One alderman said yes, and a City Council committee voted to limit their size, brightness and proximity to residential areas on Tuesday.
"This ordinance significantly darkens dynamic signs, pushes them away from residences and reduces their size," said Buildings Commissioner Felicia Davis. She called the ordinance they approved "very strict, but fair" and said it set "the most restrictive luminescence levels in the country."
The ordinance, submitted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, sets standards for brightness and calls for the light-emitting-diode signs to be shut off from midnight to 5 a.m. It limits the maximum size to 32 square feet near residential areas and 64 square feet in business districts and commercial corridors. It also bans scrolling text and swirling segues between images, and sets a "dwell time" for holding an image to at least 10 seconds.
Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) raised issues on the signs serving as a distraction to drivers. "We're all concerned with texting as we're driving," he said. "This is the same thing."
Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said the limits on signs near residential areas, generally set at a distance of 125 feet, did not adequately cover mixed-use areas like Downtown with its high-rises, where he said people are "getting sun tans through their windows."
Ald. John Arena (45th) echoed that in areas bordering expressways, where signs will be permitted to shine brighter at night because of the bright surface lighting. "If you say you're addressing this from a residential standpoint, then you haven't been out to the 45th Ward," he said. "You're in the heart of residential districts with these signs."
"This has been a balancing act," said Rose Kelly, of the Law Department. "This will help quality of life immensely."
Kelly argued for passage and said the ordinance can always be amended, adding, "We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Ald. Timothy Cullerton (38th) wondered about enforcement, and Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) emphasized that, saying, "The key to this whole things is having good enforcement."
Davis said sign firms would have to sign affidavits attesting to the signs, and there are tools the city would use to measure brightness. The issue will be complicated, however, by existing signs being grandfathered in as is. Only new signs and signs undergoing significant alterations will be subject to the new ordinance.
The signs have caused headaches for aldermen, who have said they bring on "visual blight" and lower property values. A couple on Tuesday specifically called out GreenSigns Chicago, with Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) saying, "I thought what they did was scummy."
The ordinance passed the Zoning Committee Tuesday, with Reilly and Fioretti voting "present," and heads for passage by the full City Council Wednesday.