DOWNERS GROVE – The hand-painted sign has covered the back of Leibundguth Moving and Storage since at least the 1930s, but unless the village tweaks its new sign ordinance, the business could lose its biggest and oldest source of advertising.
As one of few remaining examples of 20th-century, hand-painted signs in Downers Grove, it has historical value, owner Bob Patterson said. More importantly, the sign faces the Metra tracks, and he estimates he would lose upwards of $60,000 in annual revenue due to lost commuter exposure.
The village is enforcing the new sign rules after a nine-year grace period, but Patterson is waiting to see how the village responds to his request for flexibility.
The major issue facing Leibundguth’s sign is that the new ordinance requires signs to face public right-of-ways. Because the village code does not consider the Metra tracks a right-of-way – unlike the Tollway and other transportation – his sign is in violation. Additionally, his sign is larger than what’s now allowed, and painted wall-signs are only allowed in the downtown business district, which he falls outside of.
Patterson said he’ll paint over the sign if he has to. But, at the least, he hopes he can replace it with a standard sign facing the tracks.
“But the easiest thing to do is to grandfather in a company that’s been here since 1928, doing business,” he said.
At the Aug. 12 council meeting, Patterson and Chamber630 Director Laura Crawford made an appeal to the council to amend the ordinance to allow signs facing the Metra tracks.
The council then directed staff to prepare a report detailing how many businesses the possible amendment would affect, along with any unintended consequences, following a motion by Commissioner David Olsen. Staff is expected to return with a report and possible ordinance for consideration in the coming weeks.
Olsen said redefining the Metra tracks as a public right of way would correct what he considers an oversight in the sign ordinance.
“And it’s something that’s fairly easily corrected,” he said. “But as with anything, a simple change of language could impact other parts of the ordinance. So that’s what staff is compiling.”
He also would be open to allowing hand-painted signs out of the downtown business district.
“My opinion, personally, is that their painted sign is not harming anybody,” he said. “I personally have no issue with it and would personally be fine with allowing them to keep it, in that instance.”
From Patterson’s perspective, removing the sign would do his business a good deal of harm, along with he village tax rolls.
His estimated annual revenue loss comes from the number of calls he receives each week from customers who mention they saw the sign while riding the train, he said. If other businesses along the tracks see similar dips, that could result in a large loss of tax revenue for the village, he said.
Some businesses with rear walls facing the tracks, like Hendricks Pianos, have already removed their signage. Co-owner Bill Jenkins said he’s eagerly awaiting the village’s decision whether to amend the ordinance.
“We had a friendly, small sign,” he said. “But I would definitely put one back up as big as we were allowed to put up.”
In addition to the back-wall sign, the piano business had to cut down the sign that stood in the grass in front of the building for 33 years, long with two other wall signs, he said.
Jenkins said it would cost about $4,000 to replace the free-standing sign in front with one that complies.
He believes the village became over-zealous when overhauling the sign ordinance, an undertaking initially aimed at cleaning up Ogden Avenue.
“Ogden Avenue needed some assistance with that,” he said. “But I think they’ve taken it too far. I think it’s cost a lot of unnecessary expense to the small-business people.”
So far, about 93 percent of signs are in compliance, according to village staff.
Mayor Martin Tully could not be reached for comment but said in February that the high rate of voluntary compliance shows the new rules have not been an undue burden on business.
The village also recently heard appeals from several large retailers looking for exceptions to keep their old signage, including two Best Buys, Kohl’s, and others. Almost all have been denied by the Zoning Board.
Fines for non-complying signs can range from $75 to $750, the standard code violation penalties in the village.