CHICAGO — For small-business owners, the writing is on the wall: Get a city sign permit or face the consequences.
The number of tickets issued for sign violations has doubled in recent years, DNAinfo has found, angering shopkeepers and restaurateurs who complain that the city is being overzealous.
Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) said the rise in violations "raises the question of what inspires an aggressive enforcement crackdown and what doesn't."
"We get no complaints about window signs. People are not flooding our office angry over signs," Hopkins said. "We get lots of complaints about other things the city is not enforcing well, like parking in residential zones without permits, cars blocking alleys, commercial signs on street poles, or not cleaning up after dogs."
Hopkins suggested the city "take that aggressive enthusiasm for signs and apply it to people who don't clean up after their dogs."
The Department of Buildings issued 1,872 sign violations from 2013 through Aug. 17, according to data obtained by DNAinfo through an open records request.
Comparing combined numbers from 2014 and 2015 against tickets written in 2016 through August 2017, tickets jumped from 432 to 1,035.
The city's two designated sign inspectors go to different areas of the city based on an alternate year schedule, officials said.
Violations cover any business sign without a permit, including window signs with lettering advertising things like "pizza by the slice," dynamic image display signs, flat signs, ground signs, projecting sign and roof signs.A BP gas station at 8650 S. Morgan St., got slapped with 79 violations for failing to obtain a sign permit for window signs announcing "ATM inside" and 'WE EXCEPT IL LINK," among others. Its owner could not be reached.
Some parts of the city appear to show a concentrated enforcement, such as 60 addresses that have been hit with violations in the half-mile stretch of Lawrence Avenue between Avers and Kimball in Albany Park. In Wicker Park and Bucktown, there were 37 within five blocks of Damen Avenue between Armitage Avenue and the CTA Blue Line station, 1558 N. Damen Ave.
"It just seems unfair to make you get a permit for every window panel," Scott Toth, co-owner of Craft Pizza at 1252 N. Damen Ave. said in July as one of a number of Wicker Park business owners complained the city was overzealously ticketing.
For its part, the city says Chicago's sign laws were reformed to make them more business-friendly as part of a small-business advisory group established by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2011. One of those reforms was that signs do not need a permit if they do not exceed 25 percent of the window, officials said —less stringent than laws in New York and Los Angeles.
All sign violations are referred to the Department of Administrative Hearings, "where compliance is a defense," according to Mimi Simon, a spokeswoman for the Buildings Department, who provided background information on the sign ordinance.
"If they come into compliance, they don't get fined. If given a violation, they would have to pay for the sign permit or take the sign down," Simon said.
Simon said that there was no targeted enforcement effort on Damen Avenue or other streets.
The more dense business districts are inspected on the even-year cycle, and districts that include more residential areas are inspected on the odd-year cycle, she said. Because of the alternate-year schedule, the number of violations can vary by year.
The city held 247 administrative hearings in 2016, up from 97, and 78 hearings the two years prior. Through August, there have been 87.
The number of hearings is far less than the 1,872 violations because several businesses received multiple violations.
Violators face fines of $350 to $15,000 per day until the signs are removed, according to the city regulations.
One Off Hospitality, which advertised "Luncheonette" and "breakfast, lunch, dinner" in its window at 1547 N. Damen Ave., paid a $5,528 fine, including interest and collection fees, according to records from the city's Revenue Department.
Since 2013, 63 businesses have been hit with $192,952 in fines — but 18 of those 63 businesses have refused to pay and owe $94,731.95 to the city, with interest, administrative and collection fees.
Illinois law requires all businesses to be represented by an attorney at the hearings, an expense that can add up. Toth hired a lawyer and appeared in court twice about the four tickets he was issued. He eventually 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 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.
Nick Moretti, owner of Chop Shop at 2033 W. North Ave. was hit with three violations: for the words "1st Ward Events," and "Chop" and "Shop," all painted on the exterior brick wall of his business — a butcher shop, restaurant and event venue that transformed a long-boarded up auto body shop.
"On the fines alone, we are in the thousands of dollars. That's not including the additional legal fees. Plus, the time I've had to spend away from Chop Shop dealing with it doesn't help my business. It's really tough on small-business owners to comply. We will continue to work with the city and follow guidelines to get signage for our business," Moretti said.
City law requires permits for nonilluminated painted or vinyl advertising signs or lettering that take up more than 25 percent of any single window.
Signs that only state hours of operation, address, phone number, open and closed, and burglar alarm signs do not require a permit.
The cost for each on-premise sign permit is $200 per sign, plus a Buildings Departmen zoning review fee that can vary from $50 to $1,000 depending on the size of the sign. After that, there is an inspection fee every other year starting at $40.
Elliot Richardson, CEO of the Small Business Advocacy Council, said the Chicago sign code "is too complicated, erratically enforced and can cost small-business owners valuable time and resources."
"We are working with many stakeholders on reforming the code so that hardworking business owners can focus on serving customers, not avoiding fines," Richardson said. "Making changes to the sign code can bring much-needed relief to entrepreneurs and help local small businesses thrive."
In 2012, the city also ramped up sign enforcement after complaints about unpermitted signs, with more than 1,000 violations charged. Critics say too many signs create visual clutter affecting the aesthetics of a neighborhood.
There is relief coming for business owners who find themselves confused by sign laws, the city says: the Building Department's Simon said a guide to the city sign laws will be published soon.