New Chicago Public Way Rules: Opportunities to Reduce Costs and Streamline Approvals

25 March 2010 Publication
Authors: Donna J. Pugh

Legal News: Real Estate

Chicago business and property owners who have long lamented the onerous approval process associated with private use of the public way finally have some good news.

In January 2010, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance aimed at simplifying the process whereby property owners receive approvals to maintain canopies, marquees, awnings, signs, flagpoles, bay windows, bridges, kiosks, and other uses of the public way. In addition, in many instances, costs can be reduced.

Specific provisions of the new ordinance that may be beneficial to property and business owners are as follows:

1. Possible fee reduction. The new ordinance imposes lower fees on many types of “public way uses” (as they are now called), especially canopies, awnings, signs less than 25 square feet, and light fixtures. The new ordinance provides that the total fee for all of these public way uses at the same location may not exceed $175. Also, the public way fee for a sign more than 300 square feet will be limited to $300, no matter how large the sign. For most commercial properties, renewal under the new ordinance could result in a truly significant reduction of fees.

2. Simplified application process. Currently, public way privileges are required for each and every use of the public way; some property owners have had to secure 20 or 30 privileges for a single property. Under the new ordinance, it will be possible to file a comprehensive public way use application, for all uses on the public way, with one certificate of insurance and application fee. This will hopefully reduce the time spent on processing, tracking, and reviewing the public way privileges.

3. Non-standard sidewalk surfaces. The new ordinance clarifies a point of great confusion. Although the old law technically did not require a public way privilege for non-standard sidewalk surfaces such as granite, brick, pavers, and so forth, this was certainly the practice and commonly thought to be required. Many buildings possessing public way privileges for such uses may be able to remedy this and realize a substantial savings. The new ordinance still requires, however, proof of insurance and a maintenance and indemnification agreement for the installation and maintenance of such materials.

4. Five-year term. The new ordinance provides a five-year term for all public way uses. Previously, some uses had a three-year term, and some had a five-year term. The new ordinance will facilitate a more comprehensive handling of all public way uses for a property, as a property can now manage its public way uses to all expire at the same time.

5. Exemptions. Under the amended ordinance, some buildings will be exempt from paying fees associated with permits, although owners will still be required to get a permit through the customary application process. A $50 application fee will still be assessed in such instances. These exempt uses include:

  • Residential buildings built before 1922
  • Designated landmark buildings or contributing buildings to a landmark district, if the encroachment over the public way is part of the landmark designation
  • Landscaping and its associated structures, bicycle racks, security cameras, and portable smoking management receptacles

Of possible concern to property and business owners, the new ordinance contains provisions regarding summary revocation and removal of public way uses, which includes giving the City of Chicago the right to charge the cost of removal and restoration to the holder of the public way use permit.

Finally, one issue not addressed in the new ordinance is the impact of the new application process on business and property owners with existing public way use permits. Although the details of how the new ordinance will be applied have yet to be worked out, it is hoped that the ordinance will result in a comprehensive application and renewal process for each property.

Mayor Richard M. Daley proposed the amended ordinance at the request of Norma I. Reyes, the City’s Commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. A public hearing before the city’s Committee on Transportation and Public Way was held on January 5, 2010, and the City Council adopted the measure on January 13, 2010. The changes are the culmination of years of effort to amend the ordinance in response to business-owner concerns. 43rd Ward Alderman Vi Daley, 44th Ward Alderman Thomas Tunney, and 38th Ward Alderman Thomas Allen, who attended the January 5, 2010 hearing, have long championed these changes.

If you have any questions about how the new public way use ordinance applies to your property, please contact Donna J. Pugh at 312.832.4596 or

Six-Month Public Way Amnesty Program Launched

The amended ordinance is part of the mayor’s plan to give businesses regulatory relief during the recession. As part of that plan, the Chicago City Council also passed a companion measure in January 2010 to create a six-month amnesty program that will allow businesses with signs, awnings, and canopies to come into compliance with public way regulations.

From April 15, 2010 to October 15, 2010, the city will waive building permit fees, zoning review fees, and the first year of public way use permit fees for eligible signs. Eligible signs are those located on marquees, canopies, or awnings that have been installed without permits prior to April 15, 2010 and are less than 100 square feet and under 24 feet in height.

The City of Chicago also will waive citations for violations issued prior to the amnesty period, prosecution of outstanding violations, and outstanding fees and penalties due to violations. The amnesty program is aimed at kicking off changes to the public way ordinance, which has long been criticized by business owners as cumbersome and costly.

“The initiative will serve as an opportunity to inform businesses about the requirements necessary to have business signs,” said Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection First Deputy Commissioner Shellie Riedle, during a public hearing on the ordinance. “At the same time, it gives us an opportunity to make the necessary changes to the process to make it as easy as possible for the business to apply and receive the necessary permits required to hang and maintain a business sign without impacting public safety.”

As always, concerns of community groups and adjacent-property owners should be considered in arriving at a balance between promoting businesses and maintaining a pleasing visual landscape.

The program is part of a campaign by Mr. Daley to assist businesses during the recession. According to a report in the Chicago Sun-Times, it is expected to cost the City of Chicago $90,000, but will generate revenue over the long term due to the larger number of businesses that will obtain permits in the future.

Legal News is part of our ongoing commitment to providing legal insight to our clients and colleagues. If you have any questions about or would like to discuss this topic further, please contact your Foley attorney or the following individual:

Donna J. Pugh
Chicago, Illinois

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