Outdoor mural dispute ends ruff-ly for dog daycare owner

Amy Hunter, wtop.com

SHIRLINGTON, Va. – Kim Houghton has three options for handling the mural she had painted on the exterior wall of her business: Paint over it with pictures of anything other than dogs, whitewash it or top it with a 5-foot-tall phrase.

Houghton owns Wag More Dogs, a dog daycare, boarding and grooming facility in Shirlington, Va. She commissioned a controversial 960-square-foot mural in 2010 on an outside wall bordering the Shirlington Dog Park, sparking a legal battle that pitted her against Arlington County.

Before opening her shop in September 2010, the Arlington County Zoning Administration deemed the painting a sign – instead of a mural – and said because it was too big, it must be covered before she could open. She complied, but enlisted the help of the Institute of Justice, who filed a pro bono lawsuit in federal court saying the county was violating Houghton’s First Amendment rights.

The original suit was dismissed, and Houghton and her lawyers filed an appeal to the decision.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of the county, and now Houghton has few options left.

“I used to be really fired up about it,” she says. “And I am fired up about it, but we’ve come so far and we’re going to have to come to some kind of resolution here.”

Houghton says at the heart of the issue is whether the mural is indeed a sign. If it’s a sign advertising her business, it must comply with county sign regulations and can be no larger than 60 square feet. The painting does not mention Houghton’s business and she says she did not commission it with the intention to advertise.

“It never occurred to me that I was breaking any laws. I did it because I thought it looked pretty,” she says.

After the appeals court ruling on Tuesday, Assistant County Attorney Carol McCoskrie said the case was not about Houghton’s right to exercise free speech in the mural.

“From the beginning, … it was about the county’s right to regulate the size of commercial signs and to ensure that everybody plays by the same rules. The court agreed with us,” she says.

Across the street from Houghton’s store is another business with artful graffiti covering its exterior wall. Houghton points to this as an example of what she could paint instead that would satisfy the county.

“That’s art,” she says. “And this isn’t because it has dogs on it and this is a dog business. If the dogs were ponies or dragons or rabbits, it would be fine. I’m thinking maybe I should go with dinosaurs. That might be nice.”

Another option is to include a “Welcome to the Shirlington Parks Canine Community Area” banner across the top.

“They say this can stay if it’s an informational sign for the county … then it’s OK if it’s a county sign.”

While disappointed with the decision, Houghton says she looks forward to the future. The mural has been covered with large tarps since her business opened nearly two years ago, and the tarps can’t stay up indefinitely. But she says some good has come from her battle.

“They have been revamping the sign code since this,” she says. “To me, it seems like a pretty clear, direct result that we filed a suit in federal court over a sign issue, and the shortly thereafter the county has gone and done a huge revamping of the sign code.”

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