- The mural at Wag More Dogs in Shirlington. (Photo courtesy Institute for Justice.)
Updated 2:08 p.m. with comments from Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman, and at 1:15 p.m. with comments from Arlington County Board Chairman Jay Fisette.
Kim Houghton, owner of the Wag More Dogs pet grooming and boarding business in Shirlington, wants to keep her dog mural, and she's suing Arlington County to challenge its sign ordinance.
Houghton filed suit [PDF] in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia today arguing that Arlington Zoning Administrator Melinda Artman's ruling that the mural painted on the side of her building is illegal under the county's sign law is a violation of her first amendment rights. Hougton's attorneys also filed a preliminary injunction [PDF] to allow Houghton to display the sign while the court hears her case.
But Artman says "the mural is a commercial sign, which we have the right to regulate under the constitution." The mural exceeds the amount of sign space Wag More Dogs is permitted to have under the county's ordinance governing signs.
Wag More Dogs came under fire from Arlington County's zoning department in August after she commissioned a mural of dogs and dog-related scenes to be painted on the side of her Shirlington store (which happens to overlook the Shirlington dog park). The county ruled that the mural was a non-compliant sign advertising her business, and she was forced to cover the mural.
After Houghton reached out to County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, she says she was offered a compromise in October. Artman gave Houghton the option to turn the dog mural into a less business-oriented artwork by including the words "Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area' in four-foot-high letters.
She was surprised to hear about the lawsuit today — she says she hadn't yet been served — because "we thought we were still working with the owner," she tells TBD.
Houghton's suit argues that the sign law is a violation of her first amendment rights. “Their response was the only way I could keep it, was to paint it in essentially two lines, on top of the mural, which would cost me about $7,000. Then it would become an informational sign for the county," Houghton says.
Hougton's attorney, Robert Frommer, says he hopes the court acts quickly to grant the injunction and allow Houghton to remove the tarp. "We believe Kim has a first amendment right to express her artwork, and Arlington County thinks it has the right to treat Kim and all entrepreneurs with complete disdain," he says. "We’re on the side of free speech, they’re not."
The suit argues that Arlington County's sign ordinance is "unconstitutionally vague" and a "content-based restriction on speech." Typically, the county would have 11 days to respond to the injunction request after being served, according to Frommer.
Fisette says that while the Wag More Dogs case "is being cast as free speech issue," he sees it as "a sign regulation issue."
"If you ask me, as one board member, I kind of like murals, and as a dog owner and dog lover, I like the mural," he says. "But I also have a responsibility to ensure that what allows me to allow this mural will allow me to allow the next one on another business."
"Our goal overall is to encourage small business and help them succeed, but at the same time, we must enforce the sign ordinance fairly and consistently," he adds. "That is the challenge."
"There really wasn’t anything that came from the county that was supportive in any way to save the mural, that wasn’t going to be burdensome to me as a business," she adds. "I’m a small business. I don’t have $7,000 to throw around."
Below is our poll on the issue, as well as a video of Houghton talking about her case.