A local pastor who went to court rather than pay a fine for an alleged ordinance violation earned a victory over the village of Wonder Lake when a judge ruled she is exempt from following a municipal sign ordinance.
The Rev. Janie Long of Wonder Lake Pentecostal Church of God, 4010 Westwood Drive, does not have to pay a $750 fine issued to her in April by the village of Wonder Lake for placing a sign in her yard without a permit. In a ruling handed down July 13, Judge Jeffrey Hirsch found Long not guilty of violating the village’s sign ordinance.
Long’s small, home-based church has a sign, several feet tall, that sits near the roadway to announce Sunday services and advertise a food pantry she runs from the same location. The sign has long been a source of contention, dating back to at least August 2002, when minutes show it was a topic at a Village Board meeting. At that meeting, officials told Long the village’s ordinance requires that the sign be posted at the corner of the property only on Sundays and moved back against the building for the remainder of the week.
Phone calls to Village Hall complaining that the sign wasn’t being moved prompted a verbal warning from the village delivered to Long in December 2016. More recently, Village President Anthony Topf was presented with a petition signed by 25 residents who were upset about the sign, according to Steve Weir, village administrator.
Before the court ruling, Topf said if he were living near the church, “I don’t think I would mind [the sign]. I’d like everyone to get along, but I have this petition, and Rev. Long is defiant of compliance. My job is to uphold the ordinance.”
But the court found Long doesn’t need to follow the village’s sign ordinance. Firstly, she argued her church was established in 1973 — about a year before the village was incorporated — so it is excluded from the village’s zoning laws under a principle known as legal nonconforming use, according to court documents. (The church is located in a residential area rather than being zoned for a place of worship.)
Secondly, Wonder Lake Pentecostal Church of God is exempt from the village’s sign ordinance because it is a religious organization, the ruling stated.
Topf said the village won’t pursue the issue any further.
“She was exempt from [the ordinance], so any other type of aggressive move from the village would be that, an aggressive move,” Topf said. “If the homeowners want to do an aggressive move [such as a civil suit], that’s fine. We just did the best we could.”
The ruling applies only to Long, Topf said. Should another pastor take over the church, he or she would need to have it rezoned and follow other applicable ordinances.
Rick Verticchio, an attorney for the Illinois office of the Pentecostal Church of God who represented Long, said fighting the fine in court was about more than avoiding a ticket.
“My travel is going to be more than the money involved in the fine, but it’s the principle,” said Verticchio, whose office is in Macoupin County in southwestern Illinois. “And in this case, it’s the principle on behalf of a church.”
— Katelyn Stanek contributed to this article.