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Rauner’s digital sign biz thrives under Rahm City Hall’s rules

Every minute, all day and night, nearly two dozen signs from Bridgeport to Lake View barrage people with a rotation of brightly lit, constantly changing digital ads featuring attacks on Gov. Pat Quinn and praise for his Republican opponent Bruce Rauner.

The signs are owned by Digital Greensigns, a company bankrolled by Rauner that’s provided his campaign with more than $215,000 of free advertising, according to campaign-finance reports.

The company began operating a few months after Rauner’s friend Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, applying for 109 sign permits from City Hall. Now one of the biggest digital sign businesses in Chicago, Digital Greensigns has gotten 37 permits from City Hall and so far has put up 23 of the signs.

The signs, which Emanuel’s friend erected, are being used to attack Quinn, the candidate Emanuel has endorsed for governor in the Nov. 4 election.

More than two years after the Emanuel administration began issuing permits to Rauner’s company, City Hall changed the rules for digital signs, following complaints that they’re too bright and too obtrusive. Signs approved under the new rules can no longer be as big or as bright nor operate 24/7 — but the ones already up can stay.

None of Rauner’s signs would be allowed under the new rules. All of them are bigger, brighter and sometimes closer to homes than the city allows under a new sign ordinance, approved in April by aldermen unhappy about the explosion of digital signs across the city.

RAUNER SIGNS VS. NEW RULES

  • Bruce Rauner’s digital signs are 40 percent larger than City Hall now allows. Under a crackdown passed in April, signs can no longer be larger than 64 square feet. His are 90 square feet.
  • Rauner has two signs nearly three times larger than the city now allows in neighborhood business districts. Those signs can no longer be larger than 32 square feet. Rauner has 90-square-foot signs at 3459 S. Halsted in Bridgeport and 749 N. Ashland in River West.
  • Rauner has two signs less than 125 feet from a residential district. The new ordinance requires signs to be at least 125 feet from a residential district.
  • There are no restrictions on the brightness of Rauner’s signs, while signs under the new rules must be dimmed at night.
  • Rauner’s signs operate 24 hours a day. New digital signs have to be turned off between midnight and 5 a.m. if the permit application was submitted after April 1. City records show Rauner hasn’t applied for any sign permits under the new rules.

An Emanuel critic on the city council asks why the mayor waited nearly three years to crack down on the signs, which Rauner’s company has placed in Democratic strongholds.

“They really could have gotten the regulations in place a lot quicker,” says Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), who says he complained to Rauner’s business partners after they got permission from City Hall in May 2012 to put a digital sign at 1742 N. Milwaukee in the heart of Wicker Park.

“I thought they were dragging their feet, maybe not because of Rauner, but in general,” the alderman says of the mayor’s staff. “We wanted them to be turned off at night and for aldermen to have control of where they are. Our biggest problem is that they flash right into peoples’ homes.”

Emanuel spokesman Adam Collins dismisses any notion that City Hall stalled its crackdown to help Rauner, who helped Emanuel make more than $16 million in an investment banking deal more than a decade ago.

“The suggestion is completely untrue,” says Collins, who points out that the Emanuel administration placed a moratorium on new digital-sign permits in July 2013, until the City Council passed the new ordinance in April.

“When these signs started going up, the city took note, and we began working with aldermen to review our digital-sign regulations and draft a major regulatory rewrite to prevent the signs from proliferating further,” Collins says. “The new regulations significantly darken digital signs, push them away from residences and dramatically limit them in size.

“Not only were the moratorium and subsequent new regulations put in place to prevent Digital Greensigns, among other companies, from erecting more of these obtrusive signs,” Collins says, “the city has been taking legal action against Digital Greensigns specifically for several of their signs over the past few months.”

City Hall went to court and forced Digital Greensigns to take down a sign in West Rogers Park in August because it illegally extended over a sidewalk.

And city ofifcials might force Rauner’s company to remove two signs on a building at 1062 W. Chicago because they also illegally overhang the sidewalk, says Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who has been fighting the signs for more than a year. Emanuel picked Burnett to lead the crackdown effort.

By the time the Emanuel administration imposed the moratorium on new permits for new “dynamic” signs, Rauner’s company already had submitted 90 percent of its applications, city records show.

The moratorium went into effect nine days after the mayor returned a pair of $5,000 campaign contributions he had received a few months earlier from two partners in Rauner’s sign company — Christopher Bissonnette and Barry Schain.

Though none of Rauner’s signs would be allowed under the new oridnance, they are “grandfathered” in and can remain in operation.

Asked about the signs and whether Rauner’s company might voluntarily comply with the new rules, Rauner campaign spokesman Michael Schrimpf responded with a one-sentence email, saying only: “Bruce has not discussed dynamic signs with anyone at City Hall.”

One Rauner sign, at 2400 N. Ashland, shines into the bedroom windows of William Kulanda, his wife and daughter, whose three-story home has been in his family since 1933.

“It shines all night long. Red. Yellow. Black. Blue,” Kulanda says. “It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just one color or if it went off at midnight. If you close the shades and sleep with a towel over your eyes, it’s not so bad.”

Rauner’s company obtained building and zoning permits it needed from the Emanuel administration for its signs. But the company ran afoul of city inspectors by failing to get public-way use permits it needed from two aldermen — Burnett and Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th) — for three signs that hang over public sidewalks.

Cook County Associate Judge Mark Ballard has ordered Digital Greensigns to remove a sign above a doorway at 6958 N. Western in Silverstein’s ward. Rauner’s company will be back in court in December, a month after the election, to find out whether Ballard will impose fines being sought by the Emanuel administration.

Meanwhile, Burnett says he’s been trying for more than year to get two signs removed that Rauner’s company erected over the sidewalk at 1062 W. Chicago without getting a public-way use permit from him.

“The one on Chicago is illegal,” Burnett tells the Chicago Sun-Times. City inspectors “are going to try to take it down. I started inquiring about why it’s still up after you called.”