Arlington, VA

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.

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