Whether Arlington mural is a sign or art, compromise could help resolve dispute

A photograph of the mural, that is currently covered by a tarp outside Wag More Dogs, dog boarding facility in Shirlington, Virginia.
A photograph of the mural, that is currently covered by a tarp outside Wag More Dogs, dog boarding facility in Shirlington, Va. Kim Houghton owner of the facility had the mural painted on the side of her building. The county said the artwork violates the sign rules. ((Photo by John Kelly/The Washington Post))
By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 7:41 PM

The zoning police in Arlington County may not know a lot about art, but they know what they don't like, and what they don't like is the mural on the side of Kim Houghton's business.

Kim runs Wag More Dogs, a doggy day care in Shirlington that backs up to a county dog park. After leasing the building she hired Mark Gutierrez, an artist she met at Best Buns Bakery, to paint a 16-by-60-foot mural of frolicking dogs, pawprints and bones. It faces the dog park, cost $4,000 and was finished in May.

When county zoning administrator Melinda Artman saw the artwork, she said it violated the county's sign rules, which stipulate signs may take up no more than 60 square feet. Kim said she was given two options: cover up the frolicking dogs or add "Welcome to Shirlington Park's Community Canine Area" above the mural in four-foot high letters. A third option: leave the mural as is and face fines.

Kim reluctantly covered the painting with a blue tarp, which is why the only thing you can see now is the little head of a dog peeking over the top. Last week, the Institute of Justice entered the fray, filing a civil rights lawsuit against the zoning administrator and the county arguing that Kim has been denied her Constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Kim's hope is that a court will rule in her favor and that she can remove the tarp, revealing the mural "as a piece of art, a public expression of goodwill and beauty for the dog park."

Yeah, but who spends $4,000 solely as an expression of goodwill?

"Don't get me wrong," Kim said. "I also intended to attract customers with it, to create goodwill with potential customers."

So, does the fact that Kim was hoping it would do what a sign does - inform and attract customers - make it a sign? No, she says. "When you get right down to it, what my intentions were don't make it a sign or not. . . . This is what I tell people who think it's a sign: Stand in front of the mural. If you know nothing about my business, does it tell you anything about my business? It's simply dogs playing on a wall."

Of course, those dogs are in the same style as the cartoon dogs in her company's logo. And for a while there was a Wag More Dogs banner above the mural.

It's easy to make fun of Arlington, but don't we want rules about things like signs? But we also want common sense. I think Kim should have checked with the county before spending $4,000. She says she wouldn't have done anything differently. "I decided to ask forgiveness, not permission," she said.

The problem is that governments, like the god of the Old Testament, tend not to be very forgiving. They're less turn-the-other-cheek and more an eye-for-an-eye. Nor do they admit mistakes easily. Kim said the county wasn't very helpful as she struggled to open her business. The former ad rep at The Washington Post said she worked for more than a year to open Wag More Dogs, at one point losing six months because of bad information from the zoning office about parking requirements.

I think if Kim hadn't felt ill-served by the county's zoning folks, she might have given them a heads-up about her mural. The Institute of Justice is eager to make a federal case out of this, but I have a better idea. "Community Canine Area" is pretty ridiculous. How about splitting the cost to paint just "Welcome to Shirlington Dog Park"? And rather than letters four-feet tall, how about two-feet tall?

It's not like the dogs can read.

Children's Hospital

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