Controversy Erupts Over Dog Murals, But Help May Be On The Way

by ARLnow.com August 26, 2010 at 3:18 pm 8,319 56 Comments

Painted on the side of a cinder block warehouse and facing the popular Shirlington dog park, a large mural of happy dogs, bones and paw prints seems like a nice addition. And it would be fine with county regulators — if it wasn’t for the fact that a dog-related business commissioned it. But since the mural belongs to a small doggy daycare it’s considered advertising under county zoning code — and may eventually have to be painted over. For now, a blue tarp covers the $4,000 mural.

Across the street, a self-service dog wash is covered in graffiti, the result of the owner allowing talented local taggers to use his store as a canvas. As long as the graffiti artists don’t depict any dogs or the word “dog,” the owner has been told, the graffiti is considered art and is not subject to regulations.

Thus is the paradox of county regulations intended to protect Arlington from commercial eyesores but permit public artwork — even if the “advertisement” is actually beautifying a monolithic wall in a run-down neighborhood, it is considered a violation. Yet if the doggie daycare were to paint airplanes or fire trucks or elephants on the side of the wall — which is in plain sight of a steady procession of defecating dogs — it would be perfectly fine.

“For me, the issue is the lack of common sense,” said Kim Houghton, who has sunk her life savings into Wag More Dogs, the daycare in question, which she has been trying to open since July 2009. “I understand the law… but [the mural] adds to the park. Can’t an exception be made?”

No, says county zoning administrator Melinda Artman, who’s in charge of enforcing zoning laws in Arlington.

“Unfortunately, as attractive as that mural is… it meets our definition of a sign,” Artman said. She noted that Houghton did not apply for a comprehensive sign plan, which would have to be approved by the county board but which could have allowed the mural to exist legally.

But Barnes Lawson, a land use attorney who has worked with Houghton, says that a large mural is not likely to be approved under a comprehensive sign plan. Lawson believes the code governing signs is being interpreted too strictly.

“It’s impermissibly broad,” Lawson said. “The standards aren’t clear — you can’t read it and know exactly what’s okay and what’s not okay.”

Across the street at The Muddy Mutt, the self-service dog wash business, owner Mitch Jones says he’s doing everything he can not to get caught up in a battle with regulators.

“We’ll do whatever the county wants, it’s just difficult to know what that is some times” Jones said, adding that the regulations are especially challenging and confusing for first-time business owners such as Houghton and himself.

Jones had his graffiti artists paint over the words “dog wash” over the weekend, per the county’s request.

“It’s not like we’re trying to get away with something,” he said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to be in compliance.”

The good news is that as of today, the county board has taken steps that may eventually loosen up signage restrictions county-wide. Following a work session with the Arlington Economic Development Commission, the board asked county staff to study ways to make the sign ordinance more flexible.

“The Board today gave clear direction to the County Manager that they believe the County should liberalize its approach to signage, and asked him to come back to them with a process and timeline for reviewing the sign ordinance,” Arlington County spokesperson Mary Curtius told us in an email.

The process of revising the sign ordinance will likely take several months, if not longer. But Houghton said she was hopeful that the mural would be allowed to stay after a “very positive” meeting today with board chairman Jay Fisette. Houghton said zoning’s judgment against the mural may be suspended until the process of revising the ordinance concludes.

However, Houghton still has to live with another regulatory hurdle that was put in place last fall.

Last year she was told she would not be able to open because of a lack of parking outside her store, which is located among car stereo shops and other industrial businesses on South Oxford Street, just off Four Mile Run. An attorney for her landlord negotiated a settlement with the zoning office that will allow the store to open (it’s still under construction after a long delay in getting permits), but with certain restrictions.

Initially, Houghton had hoped to offer grooming services in addition to daycare and boarding services. But now Houghton says she’s barred from offering grooming to anyone who’s not a daycare or boarding client, because to offer it separately would make Wag More Dogs, in the county’s eyes, a retail business — which in turn would require more parking.

  • LP

    Disappointing Arlington County, disappointing.

  • Efrem

    What would Arlington County do if the American Legion had an American flag painted on the wall in honor of all those that gave up their tomorrows for our todays?

    Would they force the American Legion to cover it with a blue tarp?

    Liberals, Democraps and Progressives hate America and the Constitution – simple as that.

    • Ballstonian

      This type of stuff happens in jurisdictions all across the country. Rules are there for a reason. The intent is to keep the area looking nice just like an HOA does for a neighborhood. Those who enforce rules are notoriously obtuse. It happens. This is very unfortunate and I agree that the mural improved the appearance. Working toward fixing the rules is the best path to ameliorating the situation as is mentioned in the blog. I’m sick of every issue about Arlington on ARLnow being turned into a political battle. I’d rather read/discuss solutions.

      • CadeTyler

        Well said. This isn’t about politics, it’s about bureaucracy, which plagues all political stripes, bents and persuasions.

      • Matt

        Agreed. The solution would be to enforce property rights. If someone owns a building or space, they have the right to do as wish with that space. Rules to ‘protect’ us from ourselves are insulting at best and damage small businesses we all want in our communities at worst. The fact she cannot offer services due to parking is comical. Kudos Arlington.

        • Deb

          Actually, I’d say parking is kind of necessary for a business in Shirlington. And owning a building should not give you the right to do *anything* you want. There has to be limits.

    • Teresa

      You’re so wrong on so many levels, it’s not even worth the time it would take to point them all out to you. Your mind is made up, no sense in trying to confuse you with the facts.

  • Rover


  • Katie

    Who are these clowns who take my real estate taxes?

    • Just the Facts

      Only Efrem and his rantings could make me feel any level of sympathy for what is clearly a silly rule and decision by county regulators.

      He also makes me want to find him and take over his life just to prove I CAN, in fact, run it better than he is. Anyone who posts like he does clearly has room for improvement!

      • Rich

        that’s just offensive. you should really stop posting… it’s embarrassing.

        • Rich

          that’s for @Just the facts

  • Arlingtonian

    Wow, just wow.

  • HP2000

    Very disappointing. In the common sense world, that mural is just a mural. Unless it has text or the name of her business somewhere that I am not seeing, it is clearly not advertizing her business. That end of 4 Mile Run Drive is such a disaster, the County should be giving these businesses awards for making a go of it there.

  • MB


  • Get a Life

    Efrem…get a freaking life will you. Its not always a conspiracy theory and contrary to what you believe, Dems are proud Americans and believe in the Constitution. You and your comments are not appreciated and are getting really old.

    • JR

      everyone has a right to express their opinion… that’s american and constitutional. to say otherwise is deeply concerning.

  • DennisW

    It’s an attractive paint job on the business facade and the mural is a welcomed addition in a neighborhood marked by drab, ugly, rundown buildings, and a street that’s a parking lot for trash trucks from around the region. Hey County – get your priorities in order!

    Oh, and Efrem, I agree – get a life!

  • DennisW

    I just noticed that the photo of the tag painting on the side of the business looks like it was signed by “EFREM”

  • Let’s Be Free

    This might even get me to watch some County Board meetings again, as civic associations show up to rail against signage exceptions that the associations previously fought off. And I can’t wait to see the “art” that starts showing up as background on “Earn $$$ At Home”, “Ca$h for Your House” and “Junk Hauled” signs that sprout up en mass. And every condo developer and apartment huckster, their signs too. The sign boys will be put out of business. This will be fun!

  • Frustrated

    Just another instance of the county being at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, to the needs of small businesses trying to get by. It’s a small miracle anyone is willing to try to start a business in Arlington County given the attitute too often displayed by county staffers who don’t seem to be accountable to anyone or understand the value of having a thriving business community.

  • V Dizzle

    Lame. Maybe they can paint spots on them and call them cows instead of dogs… Or how about zombie dogs? They don’t cater to zombie dogs.

    Totally lame.

  • Thes

    I wonder what this guy would say about the mural…


  • Mark M

    I’ve been through the county process which leaves one dazed and confused. Its unbelievably frustrating. Nothing is consitant except NO. Its very sad when a citizen puts their own money into improving public appearances then the county government who is “working for the people” shuts it down?”. Need I say more?

  • kim

    Muddy Mutt says they are upholding the law, then why do they still have a “sign” on the side of their building that they know is against the law according to the code. According to Mitch “We’ll do whatever the county wants, it’s just difficult to know what that is some times” Jones said” but the Zoning Administrator was very clear on what a sign is and asked them to remove the “sign” that said “dog wash”. On their other wall they have a dog with their logo. How is that different than my sign/mural??? I think the Zoning Administrator was pretty clear on what a “sign” was and told them to remove the sign they had up. Mitch, admitted to me that they were wrong in putting up the “signs”. But in Arlnow.com he said “It’s not like we’re trying to get away with something,” he said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to be in compliance.” If that is true, then why haven’t they covered up their other “sign” with a dog AND their logo. While they claim to follow the rules, in reality they are doing the opposite. According to code: “Sign: Any word, numeral, figure, design, trademark, flag, pennant, twirler, light, display, banner, balloon or other device of any kind which, whether singly or in any combination, is used to direct, identify, or inform the public while viewing the same from outdoors”.

  • Clarendude

    Aarg! Come on, sign police – does the mural depict the name of the business ? Does the business sell dogs ? Maybe the bones depict something they sell but still… How about if the dogs were chasing martini glasses ? Or Unicorns chasing martini glasses ?

    This is similar to Restaurant 3 having to put a patch over their umbrellas that had the number “3” on them. The umbrellas that say “Lifeguard on Duty” are OK though. At least that banned example did have the name of the business. I guess if any restaurant had an umbrella with a knife and fork that would trigger the sign police.

    I would like to see he mural artist sit down with the regulators and determine exactly what it is that triggers the violation and what modification can be made to it to make it “legal”. We might end up with a more interesting mural too! I see V Dizzle had some good ideas up there too.

  • TGEoA

    Good. Art sucks

  • Diane Reeder

    Having been to to the dog park in arlington, I find the mural to be pleasing to the eye. It’s appropriate for the neighborhood and far better looking than most of the buildings that back the park. I think Arlington County is being ridiculous!

  • Whitney Wilson

    Two things. First, it seems odd that this mural would be considered a “sign.” If the zoning rules require such an interpretation, they should be reworded to give the people in charge more leeway to make decisions which make more sense.

    Second, I thought Arlington was all about the “car-free diet.” What would the rules require a business establishment to provide parking?

    • MrCar

      This may be Arlington, but it’s still America and in America, it’s all about the car. Not only is it illegal not to provide parking in Arlington but there must be spaces provided that are sized to accomodate the largest possible SUV. A good test of whether someone is a true Libertarian is ask them about parking – whether laws should dictate how much of it there is, what size it is and whether people should be free to park in front of their house.

  • charlie

    what if it was McDonalds and they painted french fries, burgers, and apple farts all over the walls? Just because it is cute dogs doesn’t mean it is ok. It is advertising and it is a visual plaque.

  • Steve

    One would think that before going to the trouble of painting the mural one would vet its installation with the county. As for the county, always gotta go by the book, look a perfectly decent art installation in the mouth, and soundly reject what could be replaced by taxpayer-funded hokum. No price is too high to procure the VERY BEST for Arlington. Take what you can get and leave it be.

    -A Progressive

  • In Kim’s posted attempt to heat up this debate, we have been falsely accused of not upholding the law. i would like to assure the readers that we have addressed the county requests and are following our agreed upon timeline for compliance. We do happen to like Wag More’s Mural —and were somewhat attached to ours as wel l:)— However, the recent pointing of fingers to gain an advantage in a fight with city hall is a bit disturbing and quite honestly we’re tired of it.

    • kim

      I only wish to see a consistent application of the law. Perhaps if Muddy Mutut would talk with me, this confusion could have been avoided. I welcome resolution and conversation with Muddy Mutt and have sought them out throughout this process. I think the great thing about an open debate like this one is that misunderstanding due lack of communication can be rectified.

  • thinkfirst

    As a non-dog owner and a resident of the neighborhood, I thought the mural was strictly related to the dog park and was wonderful! I didn’t even know there were dog-related businesses back there. It’s a shame because it really does look so much better than a blank concrete wall.

    I hope the owner and county can work something out. Regulations are usually put in place with good intentions. It’s hard to foresee every scenario that might arise down the road. Luckily, thanks to our system of government, we citizens have the ability to speak up and help change the rules.

  • tool bag

    you people are all losers. a rule is a rule is a rule, follow it or get fined. someone go and get me a latte.

  • tool bag

    a rule is a rule is a rule. all of you keep your trap down and go get me a latte.

  • Zack

    That side of the street is a terribly eyesore right now – this is just a small piece of art for the dog park (which I go to often) that really brightens up the atmosphere from being smashed between a creek and an industrial park. I don’t see what the problem is if they arent’ promoting their store name or advertising words.

    Bureaucracy at its best. Waste everyone’s time and money, “upholding” some arbitrary law.

  • Bluemonter

    EFREM, TGEoA and JR are filled with hate and lost in their delusional world that America is going down just because a democrat is in the White House. They have inflammatory and ignorant opinions on most things on this web page.
    Now, as far as the mural, Arlington County has it all wrong with these regulations/rules. As pointed out in the latest Washington Business Journal a group hired by the county to review retail development has suggested these rules be revised. I am not a Democrat or a Republican.. I have voted for Reagan and I have voted for Obama so I make this next comment in a non-political way. The Arlington Government for the last 20 years has done a good job but when it comes to small businesses they are TERRIBLE! This sign rule along with the special “meals tax” and lack of parking are hurting business tremendously in Arlington.
    I think it may be time for an independent or someone pro-business to get elected onto the board. The county needs to wake up to the new economic reality. We lost the bid for Grumman and BRAC is moving a lot of jobs out of the county. The transformation of Arlington is supposedly to fill the BRAC jobs with other retail and make Arlington a destination. In some way’s Arlington already is a destination, but to truly make it a destination you need to encourage the creative class and small business owners to conjure up ideas and creations that are inspirational and different. Sure there will be mistakes along the way but I think overall the county will benefit from a more pro-business friendly environment.

    • S. Arl. resident

      I agree!

    • Greg


    • JR

      so – i say, “everyone has a right to express their opinion” – and i’m labeled “filled with hate”? wow. Arlington does have way too many hateful people… but based on the comments of this blog… they are mostly liberals who hate anyone with a differing opinion.

    • JR

      But as for the rest of your post… i agree with you.

    • But who?

      Pro business candidate would be good but there is only Zimmerman and the guy running against Zimmerman.

  • JosephRicks

    how about a mural of guns? … that would be cool. or better yet, just a blank wall with the words “FREE CANDY”.

  • The Mothership

    Code Enforcement To List
    1: Track down Arlington’s hundreds of illegal signs.
    2: Clean them up.
    3: Ugly ones go first. Cute ones in ugly light industrial zones go last.

  • Amit

    I hope no kids selling lemonade dare put up a sign without permission!

    • But who?

      I think the sign is the least of the worries. Do they have a permit? A parking plan? Has the food prep kitchen been approved for a commercail use?

  • Ross Lin

    Would love to see the ugly buildings covered w/ artwork – graffiti of hot rods on the auto shops, more dogs, an airbrushed hot dog on the Weenie Beenie… Updated rules that allow for creativity and character w/o the blight in the video posted by Thes are in order. But it’s impossible to legislate good taste so we’ll have to live with some bad along w/ the good. Let’s paint this town.

    • 703Head

      HERE HERE let’s!!!!

  • Carrie

    RE: it being like McDonald’s. If McDonald’s wanted to paint a mural of fries and burgers in an eyesore picnic area, but didn’t have their logo anywhere, to me it would be fine. It represents what is going on (eating). Since Kim didn’t put any logos or anything representing her business, other than depicting her clientele (dogs), I don’t see how this is a SIGN. It’s in a dog park. With dogs. The mural shows dogs playing. HOW is this a sign?? This is the most absurd thing I have ever seen. Ridiculous.

    • charlie

      ahhh Carrie, but what is a logo?
      Is a Big Mac identifiable enough to be a logo? If the fries were arched, by accident of course, like they are in some commercials, would that be okay?
      If a health club painted murals of 20 people lifting weights or on treadmills, would that be a sign?
      I don’t know, these are hypothetical. But it gets to a larger point of what is and what is not a sign/logo/advertising?
      I think County could lighten up some, but not sure how.

  • This really is DISHEARTENING!

    Solely to combat the slander of The Muddy Mutt’s owners and reach out for more opportunities to better our community and neighborhood………

    1. I bought a condo off of 4mile run 2 years ago. Being a veteran of graffiti for the past 19 years of my life I saw an opportunity to right some of my own wrongs and give back to the community. To help kid’s stay far away from the life and troubles that I had put myself through being a determined force in this subculture. I approached Mitch and Tammy of the Muddy Mutt well over a year ago and asked them as long as I kept the place respectful (graffiti images / cleanliness etc..) if it would be ok to use their back lot as an outside studio to help our youth focus on the art aspect of graffiti instead of the vandalism. I can only praise the owner’s of The Muddy Mutt for doing more good for our neighborhood then any of you know.

    An example, I had over 100 graffiti artists flying in from all around the nation for a Bbq. There were over 100 graffiti artists in Shirlington on one select weekend and NOT one business along 4mile run was vandalized all weekend. Having the opportunity to keep the crowd in a controlled environment with a respected staff etc.. put all of your tax dollars to a better use, that I can gaurentee.. You all should be thanking Mitch and Tammy and helping them grow as they have done the same for the people that live in our neighborhood and our neighborhood alone, they are the people that gave me an opportunity and continue to do so…. They are far from the judgements which I have read on this forum…….

    2. Given the opportunity…. I would love to have 500 graffiti artists come into town this fall or next year and completely redo the backside of the trail. We’d make an open community event out of it! We would love to give our community and KIDS something colorful to look at other then the plain ol institutionalized boring walls that we see today (minus The Muddy Mutt :)…. We have received nothing but great feedback on what we have done with the Muddy Mutt and I think it could be a great way to really make our community the Art community it was once proposed to be… If you know who I should speak with in order to make this happen, or if you would like to work with us in these efforts, please email me. I am very serious about this project and yes, I do have access to 500 writers as we call them.

    3. With The Muddy Mutt’s approval and help alongside a non profit org. I am trying to open an Artistic Academy on the weekends down at the LOT ( as we call the back of the Muddy Mutt business. If you or your kids might be interested in learning the tools and techniques of the most popular artfrom of today. Please email me.

    I know Mitch and Tammy of the Muddy Mutt very well and it really is disheartening to read your comments of unjust slander etc…it really is SAD….

    You paid 4g’s for your mural and when we talked in person you mentioned, “and to think I could of just got you graffiti artists to do it for free”….. the answer is NO…… because we choose a different medium to use and we can paint ten times faster and just as effective/detailed as anyone using a brush…does not mean that we will sell ourselves short…. 2g’s…. and I’ll have your wall redone in a day with a couple graffiti artists…….. and please…… quit with the online slander comments and find a peacefull solution to your neighboring business IN REALITY..
    THEY ARE GREAT PEOPLE running A GREAT BUSINESS….. regardless of what you want the world to read about them……….


    Corey Cowell……

  • 703Head

    I, myself, has had the oppurtunity to meet the owners of The Muddy Mutt and know for a fact that these are hard working good people. As a South Arlington resident, I know how hard it is to have a sense of security in your community only to find out that the people who should have your back are trying to bring you down. The Muddy Mutt has given an oppurtunity to artists, who are constantly shunned for the medium of art they use, a place to show off their talents and share it with a community they love. We hold the LOT to be something very special to us and will do whatever it takes to make sure that others see it as something special aswell. KIM pointing fingers just looks bad. What The Muddy Mutt is doing is irrelevant to your business and has nothing to do with you.

    I leave you with what i tell my little neices, remember that when you point a finger one way, you have three more pointing back at YOU in that balled up fist.

    • kim

      “I love the Muddy Mutt and support their business. There is no question that they are hard working people bringing a great service to the area. I have continually sought out Tammy and Mitch regarding the fair application of the law by Arlington County. I agree it is hard to have security and I wish that they would have shared their knowledge of the sign code when I painted my mural. I welcome a peaceful resolution and sought them out just for that purpose. I continue to be open for a any resolution. I wish them all the best and hope that we can figure out how to work this out”

  • tammy

    She should remove it or put Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area. There are other businesses in the neighborhood that are pet care related. the park clearly drive a ton of traffic to the businesses in the block but this sign is specific, just for hers. It’s not fair with the other businesses even the one across the street. It is a full display of the wag more dogs and it is bringing tons of cash to her register. During a public hearing I don’t think other businesses owners could have mind because it is an industrial area, full of mechanic shops that don’t care about the noise but if you look on details this is about cash flow. When anybody decide to run a business should comply with permits and zoning regulations. if there was an intention of fixing the wall someone could have take care of the whole mural, not just their square of the wall, This is shutting down the opportunity of other entrepreneurs. No one is trying to shut down her business, she has a right to earn an honest living but we cannot monopolize a whole neighborhood for one person. Also they have call the board as bureaucrats when that’s not true, I saw the capitalism in that place when i first saw it and now displaying a pitiful attitude and saying that arlington is dulling the freedom of speech is just lame. there is support for the arlington zonning and planning, this is not south america, this is not South cental LA. if arlington allows just this, then they ll have to allow others, letting people place signs from light poles in front of their shops,propaganda is not art, it is advertising, that has nothing to do with freedom of speech.. there are regulations for commercial organizations Art it is more the graffiti across the street, neutral and non related to grooming or dogs. She shouldn’t be risking her business , she should try to follow what zoning and planning says. I gotta say it is a very thoughful marketing. there has to be an arbitrary decision from the board, it should. Beautifying could have been if she could have painted the whole mural from entrance to entrance, or none another thing i think they got ripped off, how is someone going to spend $4000 in a little bit of paint. they should admit, it is advertising and comply with the rules, be fair for everyone ​


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