WICKER PARK — A number of neighborhood small business owners are complaining that the city is overzealously policing sign permits, saying they've had to pay thousands of dollars in fines for words painted on their shop windows.
"It just seems unfair to make you get a permit for every window panel," said Scott Toth, owner of Craft Pizza at 1252 N. Damen Ave.
Toth, who has been ticketed four times, hired a lawyer and appeared in court twice about the matter. He said he decided to remove the signs in all four windows and pay a $1,000 fine that had been reduced with the help of his attorney.
Toth had paid a contractor to paint "boiled bagels," the hours of a pizza by the slice daily promotion, "pastries" and Sparrow Coffee in a window. Toth got a ticket for that window panel as well as three others that featured the restaurant's logo.
Elsewhere, hand-painted lettering at Dove's Luncheonette advertising "breakfast, lunch, dinner," and window script advertising "wedding dress cleaning" and "leather repair" at Wicker Park Cleaners also earned tickets, according to owners of those spots.
A long-standing city law enforced by the Department of Buildings states that permits are required for non-illuminated painted or vinyl advertising signs or lettering that take up more than 25 percent of any single window.
The cost for each on-premise window sign is $200 per sign, plus a Department of Buildings zoning review fee that can vary from $50 to $1000 depending on the size of the sign.
"The city could get out of debt five times over with the amount they are collecting from these signs. Are they writing tickets to everyone? Real estate agents, restaurants, cleaners, salons — they all have lettering or logos in their windows in some way," said Toth.
The city requires that a professional contractor apply the lettering or images. Violators face fines of $350 to $15,000 per day until the signs are removed, according to the city's "Sign Regulations and Permits."
Craft Pizza opened in 2014, and the signs were installed in 2015 and 2016 as the pizzeria expanded its offerings. Toth said he was never informed of the law until he received the tickets this fall.
Mimi Simon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Buildings, who referred DNAinfo to the part of the city's website that informs small businesses of city sign laws, issued a statement late Friday.
"When Mayor Emanuel took office in 2011, he initiated a monthly small business working group of city staff and small business partners to address issues facing small businesses in Chicago. As a result of the feedback from this working group, several sign reforms have been implemented, including eliminating the need to acquire a sign permit when the total number of signs painted on a window does not exceed 25 percent of that window," Simon said.
Simon emphasized that "signs under 50 square feet in a single window have a minimal zoning review fee of $50, and if a business is found to be noncompliant, fines are typically not issued if the business can prove compliance with the Chicago Building Code at an Administrative Hearing.“
"The goal of the Department of Buildings is to work with business owners to bring them into compliance," Simon added.
One Off Hospitality, a large restaurant group that bought Big Star, Dove's Luncheonette, Publican Anker and The Violet Hour to the neighborhood, also has been ticketed for illegal signs.
A spokeswoman for the restaurant group said that the company was not aware of the sign law until its landlord received two violations for two signs in the windows of Dove's Luncheonette at 1537 N. Damen Ave.
Those two violations — resolved last week when One Off Hospitality applied for sign permits for each of its two windows — date back five years ago, when another restaurant occupied the spot and also had lettering in the two windows. Dove's replaced that business' name with its name when it opened in 2014.
A few blocks south of Dove's Luncheonette, Wicker Dry Cleaners at 1250 N. Damen Ave. also has been ticketed for window signs.
The cleaners' manager, Cyndi Miranda, said that the painted window sign advertising wedding dress cleaning and leather repair had been in the window for 14 years with no issues.
But this spring inspectors told the cleaners to take the words down or face a $1,000 daily fine, Miranda said.
"We took it all down," Miranda said, adding that the cleaners' owner did not want to pay for new permits or a contractor to reinstall the signs.
"Between the fees and it being time-consuming, she did not want to deal with it," Miranda said.
On Wednesday, 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno said the city sign rules are working against business owners and adding extra costs on top of city fees for canopies, awnings, neon signs, sidewalk cafes and a litany of other things that need city approval.
"The mayor passed the JC Decaux billboard ordinance for millions of dollars, so ads can be on billboards, and my local guys can't put a sticker in their window?" Moreno asked.
Moreno said nobody has complained to him about signs in the window of businesses. He added he has heard from one restaurant on North Avenue in Wicker Park that was also ticketed for on-premise window signs.
"The city is punishing small businesses and needs to back off. I'm going to work on an ordinance to allow [business owners] to have the [on-premise window] signs for a nominal fee," Moreno said.
The signs at Craft Pizza, before and after being removed. [Courtesy of Scott Toth]