Outrage over awnings: Small business owners angry about permit citations

Kelly O’Leary has been in business for 10 years in Edgewater, and she’s never had a problem with the awnings that overhang her coffee shop -- until now.

It's not the awnings themselves -- but the bureaucratic nightmare of the awning permit process.

And O'Leary isn't the only one.

Recently, small businesses owners in the Andersonville and Edgewater communities have been receiving citations from the city for not having the appropriate permits. The business owners thought they had the permits they needed, and say they were never tipped off by the city that multiple permits were required for the same awning.

O'Leary, owner of Coffee Chicago, has had two awnings for ten years and never knew she needed a separate permit for the language on those awnings.

“I should’ve been stopped way back when I applied for the permit,” says O’Leary.

Confused as to why the citation was issued, O’Leary called the designated number on the notice but the staff person left her more confused.

Alderman Mary Ann Smith (D-48) got wind of numerous complaints from her small business constituents and invited city departments related to signs and awnings to address the small businesses and clear up confusion about exactly how many permits are needed.

“It was pretty clear at the meeting that none of them could describe the process that a business needs to go through to get a permit,” says Ellen Shephard, executive director of Andersonville Chamber of Commerce.

O’Leary was told that she did not have the appropriate permit for the commercial language on her signs.

After 23 years of business, Jan Baxter also is confused as to why she received a similar citation.

“Wouldn’t you think at some point somebody would have said in 23 years, ‘Oh, you don’t have enough permits for this,’” says Baxter.

Baxter, who owns the Landmark shop, is one of 11 businesses on North Clark that have received citations.

Bill McCaffrey, spokesman for the city's buildings department, says that business owners should always start with the buildings department and a representative will lead applicants to other departments if necessary.

“Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for non-compliance,” says McCaffrey.

Zoning lawyer Mark Kupiec says it’s not always that easy for small business owners.

“It’s a complicated process over there,'' says Kupiec, who added that contractors often hire specialists to help with the permit process.

The biggest complaint among businesses is that there is no one-stop shop for permit information relating to awnings and no one has provided them with definitive answers on exactly how many permits are needed.

“I’m not surprised,” says Robert Grela a private contractor. “It’s frustrating, but that is the norm.”

Grela advised small business owners with awnings to consult the departments of zoning, building and licensing as a means to double-check they have the appropriate permits.

When asked how many permits are needed for an awning, buildings department spokesman McCaffrey says, “three permits.”

McCaffrey explains that one permit allows the awning to hang over sidewalks or public spaces; a second permit is required for installation, and the third permit is for the commercial language.



LOU GRANT, 07-10-2009

Thank You Samantha, nice story.

Mr. McCaffrey is correct, of course, that ignorance of the law is no excuse for violations. But, taking a step back, what is the purpose of the City controlling the language on awnings? There is no safety or health issue. As the awning has already been approved for its location, twice, in fact, we can make a number of assumptions for why this ordinance was put in place, but not that the awning is an approved installation.

It is not an excuse by the City that the citizens were not aware of its arcane laws when the law serves no real purpose.

Mr. McCaffrey, the real question is why is the city enforcing an ordinance without purpose?