CRYSTAL LAKE – Bernotas Middle School students got an unplanned civics lesson from the Crystal Lake City Council this week.
The City Council turned down a request by the school’s parent teacher organization to install an electronic messaging sign in front of Bernotas, which is at 170 N. Oak St. in a residential neighborhood.
Students had raised more than $18,000 to pay for the sign over the past 2½, PTO Board President Lori Stroh said.
“They are very disappointed,” she said. “It’s been devastating. Our dream fell apart last night.”
The council voted 4-3 Tuesday to reject the PTO’s request for a special use permit that would have allowed the 6.3-foot electronic sign. A supermajority of five votes was needed to override the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which had denied the permit in May.
Councilman Brett Hopkins agreed with school officials that Bernotas needed a new, more visible sign, but said he doesn’t think electronic signs belong in residential areas.
“My issue was with the electronic component,” he said.
At least one neighbor expressed concerns about the proposed sign to council members.
Hopkins was joined in opposition by Mayor Aaron Shepley and council members Ralph Dawson and Carolyn Schofield.
Councilman Jeff Thorsen disagreed. Other schools such as Crystal Lake South High School and Prairie Ridge High School, have electronic signs, he said.
“I thought it was an innocuous request,” Thorsen said.
He said he wasn’t worried the council’s decision would set a precedent leading other schools and civic organizations to request similar signs because “the floodgates had already been opened.”
Thorsen added: “I feel bad for the school, but maybe they learned a little bit about government.”
In addition to raising money to pay for the proposed sign, some Bernotas students wrote persuasive letters to city leaders and spoke in front of the City Council.
Stroh said she didn’t know how the PTO would proceed. However, she said there was little incentive to go ahead with what she called an “outdated” sign.
Crystal Lake District 47 Superintendent Donn Mendoza said parents, staff and students at the school spent a lot of time raising money, putting plans together, and seeing the project through the city’s planning process.
“It’s disappointing, but we submit to the process,” he said.
The City Council handles electronic sign requests on a case-by-case basis.
In December 2011, the Council voted 6-1 to approve an electronic messaging sign for Sage YMCA, at 701 Manor Road in a largely residential neighborhood, over objections from nearby homeowners and concerns from the city’s planning commission. Council member Carolyn Schofield opposed the Sage YMCA sign request. Some homeowners who live near the YMCA facility are outside the city’s corporate limits and can’t vote in city elections.
Shepley said the YMCA sign proposal was set back farther from neighboring homes than the Bernotas sign proposal. He also said he was concerned about the precedent it would set for the city’s 11 other middle and elementary schools, most of which are in residential areas. Even so, he lauded the effort of students, PTO members and school staff.
“I feel bad,” Shepley said. “But the civics lesson here is that before you raise the money, you need to identify what you are going to be allowed to build.”