Chesterton Tribune

Chesterton BZA approves sign variances for auto dealership

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Members of the Connors family told the Chesterton Board of Zoning Appeals why they need to revise signage at their East Porter Avenue auto dealership, but it was matriarch Phyllis Connors who cut to the chase.

“We need signage very desperately,” she told the BZA Thursday. Connors said tractor-trailer drivers delivering new vehicles can’t find their location at the northeast corner of Porter Avenue and Indiana 49.

Voting 4-0 with member Fred Owens absent, the board approved 24 individual sign variances dealing with number, type, height, location and size of signs --- the most controversial for a 30 foot-tall additional free-standing sign.

Connors attorney Greg Babcock said in 2010 the dealership removed a 36 foot-tall sign. He argued the 4.4-acre site houses three buildings totalling 24,000 square feet so the requests aren’t excessive.

Prior to the vote BZA member Sig Niepokoj said the planned signage “will be a good addition, an improvement to our community.”

Member Thomas Browne said he appreciates that corporate branding requires a consistent identity, but the BZA must be cautious because “Porter Avenue is a gateway and we have to ensure it’s not U.S. 41 in Highland or U.S. 30 in Merrillville.”

Presiding board member Rodney Corder said the Connors family has made a significant commitment in investment and employees in the community, and the family has made a conscious effort to control overall signage.

Member James Kowalski, who had asked Phyllis Connors to comment, quizzed Babcock closely about the 30-foot sign height but eventually voted in the affirmative.

During a public hearing on the petition Kent Mishler, Kim Goldak, Jim Anton, Terry Hiestand and Connors Chrysler service manager Ron Donohue all spoke in favor of the Connors petition, which took one hour to present, discuss and decide. No one remonstrated.

Mishler and Goldak said in dire economic times the town should help local businesses, and those willing to take an investment risk should be encouraged. Anton said the improvements will enhance the look and value of the town’s only auto dealership. Hiestand said local laws shouldn’t impede use of franchise signage when in this case they do no harm.

Donohue said his service staff of 10 work, eat and shop in Chesterton and take customers around town as needed, all helping the local economy.

Mike Connors said their competing Buick and Chrysler franchises both are pressing for the Chesterton dealership to upgrade its facilities with $400,000 in improvements planned for current industry branding and colors.

Kathy Connors said her family company has doubled its employees to 33 and added new machinery and equipment to staff two service departments.

Architect David Kinel of Gerometta & Kinel said with fewer dealerships nationwide, the franchising companies want retrofitted and immediately recognizable locations. “Before, everything was free and loose. You could do what you want. Now, everything’s segmented. The dealers are all caught in the middle of this stuff.”

Chrysler has dictated the look of that building’s front arched entrance, said Babcock, and a Buick arch is needed for its building. Town building commissioner Dave Novak said while arches are technically signs, their purpose at Connors is clearly to upgrade the building’s appearance.

Babcock said the Connors dealership has been in Chesterton since 1975 and at its current location since 1989.

In other business, the BZA set for public hearing Feb. 23 three new petitions heard Thursday as preliminary hearings:

• A request on behalf of Winey Insurance seeking two variances to rebuild a sign that had blown down at the company’s South Calumet Road location.

• A request by Susan Horn as co-trustee of two Smith Family trusts seeking four variances to replace a free-standing sign with a 45 foot-tall, two-sided LED billboard at the northeast corner of Indiana 49 and Porter Avenue north of Connors Automotive.

• A request by St. Anthony Hospital’s parent company seeking four variances related to signage sought for its new health-center complex on the south side of Indian Boundary Road at the site of the former original Jewel store.