12/14/2014 09:27 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2015

Sign of the Times: Local Governments Cross the Line With Signage Restrictions

In the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, all signs are limited in size and style.

They have to be -- unless they're political. Or government owned. Or highlight real estate, birthdays, or any village-sponsored or approved event or national holiday.

That's not by accident. In 2005, Downers Grove Village Council passed strict and specific requirements for anyone wishing to display signage within the village.

Content-based restrictions like the ones that exist in Downers Grove are at issue in the soon-to-be-heard Supreme Court case Reed v. Gilbert, a case out of Gilbert, Arizona, that also stems from city rules on signs.

Pastor Clyde Reed, the plaintiff in this case, presides over Good News Community Church, which rents temporary spaces for worship services. The church uses roadside signs to advertise service locations, but the town of Gilbert's sign regulations only allow the church to display notices up to 12 hours before, during and one hour after the service ends.

That's the rule for all "non-commercial event signs." Other signs are not treated the same way - for example, Gilbert's rules allow for political signs to go up 60 days before an election.

The plaintiffs in the case say the town's rules don't treat all people - and signs - equally.

The same inequitable treatment is present in Downers Grove, as well.

Robert Peterson owns Leibundguth Moving & Storage Inc., a business that has been headquartered in Downers Grove for about 80 years. For more than 70 years, the business has boasted a hand-painted sign on the back of its brick building.

This sign is important because it is visible from BNSF Metra trains, which haul thousands of commuters to and from Chicago each day. Peterson estimates this sign pulls in 12 to 15 customers each month, accounting for about $40,000 to $60,000 in business each year. Downers Grove's rules not only limit the size of signs Peterson is allowed to display, but also makes it illegal to have a sign facing the Metra tracks - the same would not be true if he wanted to display a sign advertising the sale of a property or a political campaign.

Essentially, the village has given Peterson and other business owners a ridiculous choice: acquiesce to strict advertising restrictions or face steep fines. Leibundguth alone could be hit with fines of $50-$750 daily for as long as its signs aren't in compliance with city law.

If these sign restrictions don't already strike you as arbitrary, consider this: Peterson's business is just one block away from a different zoning district in which his signs would be legal.

The gaping flaws in Gilbert and Downers Grove's sign laws don't mean local officials are bad people with malevolent aims -- presumably, they did this with the best intentions. Doug Kozlowski, Downers Grove's director of communications, noted that some of the goals of the ordinance include preserving the value of private property and enhancing the physical appearance of the village.

The problem is that this is simply not the village's business. These sign rules make local boards seem more like a busybody homeowner's association and less like a local government.

In Peterson's case, the effect of eliminating his historic sign would mean his mom-and-pop shop would suffer the loss of a huge business generator and therefore a large chunk of income. A handful of businesses, including Best Buy and Kohl's, petitioned to keep their signs. Interestingly, while Peterson's petition to keep his existing sign was denied by village officials, Art Van Furniture, a large Chicago chain, was granted an exemption from the rules. The village also gave the company hefty tax subsidies.

These inconsistent and burdensome sign rules are an example of local government grossly overstepping its bounds. Maintaining comely local signage is not a core government service -- it is a way for local officials to impose their tastes and values on the public.