A number of Riverside business owners heaved a collective sigh of relief last week when trustees voted unanimously to adopt a new law that will grandfather about 20 business signs that don’t conform to the newly updated code.

Village trustees were at an impasse over the code, which initially called for all non-conforming signs to be phased out within five years. It wasn’t a new provision — it had been on the books since 2005 — but the phase-out requirement was never enforced.

The law passed last week will allow the non-conforming signs — which include pole signs, internally lit box signs and oversized wall signs — to remain in place indefinitely.

“It’s a very common-sense decision,” said Cindy Splingaire, who along with her husband Jeff owns Jeff’s Auto on East Quincy Street in downtown Riverside.

The property has a pole sign that’s been in place for more than 30 years and would have had to come down if the initial version of the code had passed.

“I had the confidence that those of us who have been around a long time would be saved that expense in the current economy,” said Splingaire. “It shows a lot of respect and excellent government.”
In addition, the new code allows new types of signage, such as shingle-style signs that project perpendicularly from buildings, and streamlines the sign permit review process. Permits no longer must be approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Instead, most sign permits will need simple sign-off by village staff.

Charles Pipal, who owns a building on East Burlington Street that houses several businesses, said the new code will allow his tenants greater visibility by utilizing the shingle-type signs now allowed by law. 

“The tenants in the back of the building have very little street presence,” said Pipal. “This allows us to demark businesses that are back-of-house spaces.”

Pipal also lauded the streamlined process for gaining approvals.

“It’s no longer a cumbersome process,” Pipal said. “It’s now a matter of right for businesses to get one of these signs. It allows us to coordinate the sign size and graphics because we want to do it nicely and uniformly for all of our tenants.”

It’s taken about a year for village staff to craft a sign code that trustees could agree on. In December 2014 after hours of discussion over the course of several meetings, trustees were at loggerheads over the non-conforming sign phase-out requirement and shipped the document back to Community Development Director Sonya Abt.

Abt was charged with crafting a revision that would please trustees wishing to grandfather the non-conforming signs and those who wanted tighter controls on non-conforming signs.

The resulting ordinance, which was passed after only a brief discussion on April 16, found the common ground that trustees were looking for. While the non-conforming signs are grandfathered, the law makes clear they won’t be around forever.

The non-conforming signs can’t be structurally altered, enlarged, replaced or moved. In addition, if a non-conforming sign is damaged such that the cost of restoration would exceed 50 percent of the original cost of the sign, the sign has to be made conforming.

Non-conforming signs also must be made to conform when “business use or identity associated with the non-conforming sign terminates or changes.” The text or content of a non-conforming sign also may not change without triggering the need to make it conform to the code.

Trustee Ellen Hamilton called the revised code “a breath of fresh air,” while both trustees Jean Sussman and Doug Pollock, who had backed the phase-out, said the new code was a good compromise.

“It allows us to maintain [the village’s] character and allows us to move forward,” Sussman said.

While voting for the law, Trustee Michael Foley cautioned that the village must be vigilant in the future about enforcing the code, even if it means potential legal battles with recalcitrant property owners who drag their feet on complying with it.

“I think this board has been clear in stating we will enforce our laws,” said President Ben Sells, who hailed the new sign law.

“Now our businesses … have very clear guidance,” said Sells. “And from an organizational standpoint, one of the best things we’ve done is we now have the administrative review and permitting of signs instead of the lengthy process of going through Planning and Zoning, which really furthers the pro-business, welcome-to-Riverside attitude that I think this board has stood for.”

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