Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Amongst a sea of signs one Henderson Street sign is clearly in the wrong place
by Mike Kroll
Eagle-eyed Galesburgers may have noticed the new 9,000 square feet retail space constructed in the parking lot of the former movie theater on North Henderson Street. Dubbed “Henderson Suites” and currently awaiting its first tenant, this small strip mall is owned and managed by Bell Foods of Bloomington. Bell also owns the rest of the shopping center containing Econofoods and Big Lots. Last fall the company constructed a new sign where the former movie theater sign had been located along Henderson Street between the Community Bank incoming driveway and an entrance/exit to the new Airport Centre strip mall. While everyone involved acknowledges that the current sign is out of compliance, city officials are currently opting to simply ignore their own ordinance. Both of the sign's neighbors want the sign either removed or brought into compliance with the existing sign ordinance.
“What is happening here is just not right,” says Community Bank of Galesburg CEO Dean Easton. “There is no question that this sign is both too close to the property line and too close to an existing off-premises sign [a billboard north of Airport Centre] and the Board of Zoning Appeals denied them a variance yet the city has chosen to not enforce its sign ordinance. The Henderson Suites sign is considered an off-premise sign; it must be no closer than 750 feet from an existing off-premise sign and 20 feet from the property line. The present sign does not comply with either restriction. From the perspective of my bank, this poses a number of safety issues to my customers and employees as well as functioning as an implicit invitation for patrons of Henderson Suites to use our one-way private drive as a two-way access road. This is an accident waiting to happen.”
The concerns are more than merely hypothetical. Easton reports that he and his employees regularly see motorists who did not use the bank zipping through the bank's driveway as both an entrance and exit to the Bell Properties shopping center. Technically this is a form of trespassing whether motorists use Community Bank’s driveway or the Airport Centre drive entrance on either side of the Henderson Suites' new sign. “This problem isn't new but the sign invites an escalation,” pointed out Easton. Beyond the improper use of the drive is the fact that the new sign's lowered height obscures visibility to both drives — creating another traffic accident hazard.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Bell Properties applied for and received a sign permit allowing construction of the sign currently in dispute. Former city inspector Mike Ross issued the permit that Galesburg attorney John Hanlon now admits was in error and counter to requirements of Galesburg's sign ordinance. “This is an unusual circumstance,” said Hanlon. “Because the permit was issued in error we believe that Illinois law would support the property owner's right to keep the sign in place despite its non-compliance with our ordinance. Therefore the city has deemed that the sign should be allowed to remain because it was constructed with a city permit.”
Neither Easton nor Joe Mangieri, representing Airport Centre, want to be the bad guys here. They both realize that use of their private drives has been a long-established traffic pattern here but in the past the problem was mitigated by the movie theater's primary activity in the evening hours. That has changed with a more traditional retail flavor to the Henderson Suites. “My company does electrical work all over Galesburg and I understand the need to know and comply with codes and ordinances as should have been the case with the contractor that constructed the Henderson Suites' sign,” commented Mangieri. “It is easy to see how a permit could have been accidentally issued in error but the fact remains that the sign is not in compliance. We have no intention of preventing the use of our drive by patrons of Henderson Suites but we certainly don't want it to appear that our drives are the principle entrance to the shopping center and that is what the present sign does. The legal and established entrances and exits to the Bell property are off Fremont and Dayton Streets but there is also a drive off Henderson immediately north of the F&M Bank branch that could be a location for this sign or a substitute.”
The position of Easton and his attorney, Jack Blake, is that the sign is out of compliance whether or not Ross approved the permit in error. That approval doesn't negate the sign's impact on the property rights of Community Bank or Airport Centre nor does it make an unsafe situation any less unsafe. “The city should publicly own up to their mistake and perhaps subsidize the cost of moving Mr. Bell's sign to a more appropriate and legal location rather than penalize the adjacent property owners for the mistake. Both my bank and myself personally support economic development like the Henderson Suites shopping center but this ordinance exists for a reason and should be uniformly enforced.”
Bell Foods applied to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance on this sign in November 2005. At a hearing held on November 15th, the Board of Zoning Appeals denied Bell's request and Ross sent them a letter the following day instructing that the sign be removed or a second variance request be filed. After neither action was taken, Blake wrote a letter to Galesburg on December 20, 2005. “As of today's date, Bell Properties had not taken any steps toward the removal of the sign.” Blake went on to quote Galesburg code that sets a penalty of “a fine of not less than $25 nor more than $500 each and every day that such a violation continues...”
“While there is nothing documented that the city does not intend to enforce this sign ordinance, that is what I was told orally during a conversation with John Hanlon,” explained Blake. “We are very hopeful and anxious that the city will choose to enforce the sign ordinance but, if not, we are prepared to resort to legal redress on behalf of our client. If the city erred in granting a permit wrongfully, that error shouldn't be compounded by penalizing neighboring businesses and the safety of citizens in general.”