Arlington County's hounding of a dog-care business makes no sense

Friday, December 10, 2010; 9:04 PM

IT'S UNDERSTANDABLE that Arlington County has rules about the size of signs. Who, after all, would want to live next door to a giant, flashing "Joe's Delicatessen"? But when those rules are so inflexible as to upend common sense - not to mention what's best for the community - then it's time to take another look.

A case in point is the saga of the Shirlington business owner who commissioned a colorful mural of frolicking dogs, bones and paw prints on the rear of her building, which faces a dog park. Kim Houghton, owner of Wag More Dogs, a day care, boarding and grooming facility for dogs, found she had run afoul of the county ordinance limiting signs to 60 square feet. Never mind that the mural doesn't mention her store. Or that the painting is far more attractive than the gray cinder block it replaced or those ugly blue tarps she installed at the county's behest to hide the artwork. Many of those who visit the dog park said they thought the mural enhanced the neighborhood.

Arlington officials argue that the mural promotes the canine boarding and grooming facility run by Ms. Houghton, a former ad executive for The Washington Post. It's only fair to other dog businesses, they say, that she conform to the rules. But the county undercut its own argument when it suggested Ms. Houghton add the wording, in 4-foot-high letters, "Welcome to Shirlington Park's Community Canine Area," which in effect would co-opt the mural into a sign for the county. Ms. Houghton balked at the estimated cost of $7,000; the mural had already cost her $4,000, and she had put another $150,000 into starting the business.

Instead, she filed suit in federal court with the help of the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm. The suit argues Ms. Houghton's First Amendment right to express herself through art is being abridged. And it notes that there would not have been a problem if the mural depicted flowers, dragons or ponies instead of dogs. The absurdity that reveals should cause Arlington residents to wonder about their government's grasp of common sense.

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