I-Team Report: Sign of the Times

February 18, 2009 9:47:04 PM PST
You might not think of crime while looking at a billboard, but Chicago has long had a problem with advertisements going up without city authorization. While some say they are an eyesore, they are also a missed opportunity for the city to collect big fees and fines.

In Chicago and most places, you have to have a permit to put up a billboard.

It was hard for the I-Team to imagine that something as big and as public as a billboard could be put up illegally. But city officials say it is happening frequently.

Exactly two months ago, Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that increased the fine for erecting an illegal billboard to $10,000. But short cutting the system is a sign of the times.

They pockmark the city.

"It popped up last week, its such a huge sign it's hard to miss," said Bruce Anderson, Logan Square resident.

You wouldn't know it to look at any of them, but city inspectors say some signs are illegal.

"We still have likely hundreds of illegal billboards throughout the City of Chicago," said Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd ward. "These signs have a significant impact on the character of a neighborhood."

Alderman Brendan Reilly thought that hiking the fine for illegal signs to $10,000 per citation would be a strong incentive for sign companies to make sure they had permits. And the city can write a citation every day the illegal billboard is up.

It's a missed opportunity for Chicago budgeteers who are facing a deficit of $50 million to raise money instead of raising taxes, fees and fares while laying off city workers.

"The city building department,the cityzoning department are in charge of enforcing that ordinance. They are certainly understaffed and their resources are thin but I think the city needs to make it a high priority to make sure that these sign companies and building owners are adhering to the law," said Reilly.

Reilly says the city did crackdown on illegal boards right after his ordinance passed in December, but says there are still a dozen illegal billboards in his ward alone.

Chicago building commissioner Richard Monocchio was too busy for an interview, according to his spokesman. Even though they would like more staff, he claims the department inspects 38,000 billboards, awnings and marquees a year.

The department has up to five inspectors that can average approximately 150 signs a day because they cluster inspections geographically.

While they catch some scofflaws on their own - 377 violations were written in 2008 and 57 so far this year - the department spokesman says they rely on the public and aldermen to report suspicious billboards.

"Somebody here is failing," said Anderson.

In Logan Square, long time residents were furious when they saw a billboard on historic Logan Boulevard where such advertisements are prohibited and one is illegal. It's part of Pepsi's new ad blitz.

At 2,000 square feet, it is impossible to miss but that is just what city officials did. They missed it and residents can't imagine how.

"We'd like to see it come down," said Paddy Lauber, Logan Square resident.

Lauber says the wow board is attached to an old building on Logan Boulevard, making it part of a landmark district.

The huge billboard has become an instant backdrop for this historic Chicago scene known as "The Monument," commemorating the centennial of Illinois' admission into the union. It was designed by the man who created the Lincoln memorial in Washington.

"It's the center of Logan Square, it's the one area that ought to be protected more than any other area," said Anderson.

City building department officials have issued this violation for the Pepsi ad, but say they still don't know which display company put it up without a permit.

The owners of two major billboard companies ? CBS Outdoor and Red Star Outdoor - say the city is often wrong in issuing violations and they plan to dispute some of the citations at administrative hearings.

At those administrative hearings, sign companies often bargain down their fines, according to Alderman Reilly who is urging the city to stop negotiating with sign scofflaws.

On Wednesday, the president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Illinois tells ABC7 that their code of ethics actually calls for the quick removal illegally erected billboards.