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County Prepares to Fight Sign Lawsuit

by ARLnow.com December 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm 2,086 40 Comments

Arlington County is preparing to fight a legal challenge to its commercial sign ordinance — the first such challenge since the creation of the ordinance.

County Attorney Stephen MacIsaac says the county has a number of arguments to counter the lawsuit’s claims. The suit argues that regulators are infringing on a small business owner’s free speech by deeming a large mural painted on the side of her building a commercial sign and not artwork.

“I think it should be fairly apparent under the sign ordinance that this is a sign,” MacIsaac said. The mural is “clearly an effort to promote this woman’s business… to depict it as public art, I think, is a bit of a stretch.”

MacIsaaac said that the county’s sign ordinance is consistent with ordinances currently in place in other jurisdictions.

“Our sign ordinance is not unusual in any way,” he said. Arlington’s political sign rules were challenged just over 10 years ago, according to MacIsaac, but this is the first time someone has mounted a formal legal challenge to the commercial sign ordinance.

MacIsaac, the county government’s top legal counsel, added that the his office hasn’t officially been served notice of the suit, which was filed in federal court on Thursday. He expects the litigation to take about a year, and expected the county’s first court appearance to happen at some point this winter, perhaps February.

“We’re sort of in a wait and see mode right now,” MacIsaac said. “Right now we’re just assessing the case and waiting for the timeline to be established. This is going to be a process.”

  • Runaway Train

    So we have to look at a blue tarp for a year?

    • Clarendude

      Seems so, unless a hardware store that sells tarps moves into the location then they would have to take it down. 🙂

      • el fat kid


      • mehoo

        She should just go find a tarp with a nice dog design on it.

      • jan


      • TGEoA

        She should paint some dogs on the tarp. Or put up a plastic tarp.

  • el fat kid

    this is ridiculous… really am having a hard time understanding the county’s motives for continuing this fight.

    • Greg

      It’s like M.I.A. sang: Boredom Is the Reason!

  • Arrrrrlington

    Where’s common sense when we need it? What kind of mural could the business owner put up that wouldn’t be misconstrued as a business sign? If it was a bunch of humans frolicking around and not dogs?

    A big gray brick wall is far more attractive than a nicely painted mural. The gray brick wall will do wonders for improving the beauty of the county. /s

    I hope the county loses this suit.

    • mehoo

      If the county loses this suit, we’ll have big ugly signs everywhere–which is why the county should just drop it and let the lady do a public service. So what if she gets away with a little advertising with public art?

    • mehoo

      Wait – my mistake – she’s suing the county. The county should drop the enforcement action in the first place. But of course that might not be legal.

      I know – the county should rewrite it’s ordinance.

      • que_de_que

        if the county drops its enforcement action against this mural, then any business owner in arlington could do the same thing and get away with it.

        i’d rather them pursue this and win.

        • mehoo

          So what? Let businesses put up public art that just happens to reflect their business. The point of the law is to prevent big ugly signs and billboards, not stop advertising altogether. This isn’t ugly.

          The county should simply change the ordinance to allow for tasteful public art like this, even if it happens to subtly promote a business. If the whole ordinance is overturned by this lawsuit, then you might have everyone putting up billboards and other ugly stuff along with the nice art.

          • que_de_que

            who determines what “tasteful” art looks like? change the ordinance to allow that, and people will argue their ugly murals are “tasteful”. the county has to put its foot down somewhere.

          • mehoo

            You don’t have to decide what’s tasteful – you just decide what’s advertising. If the name or phone number or whatever of the business is in the art, it’s an ad. If not, it’s art. Then it’s not subject to any regulation and nobody has to decide whether it’s good or not.

            I meant “tasteful” to mean “not an big fat ugly billboard ad.”

  • Lou

    How can they say the mural is “clearly an effort to promote this woman’s business” when it does not reference the business? No name, no http://www., no phone number. Unless you walked around to the front and saw the business entrance you would just think it was a mural next to a dog park.

    • jan

      That’s my view,too.

    • Frank

      Here is why it references her business….she includes the same cartoon dogs in her logo, there is a sign TO THE LEFT, as she has corrected us before that names her business, that it is now open, and has the logo. That signage was approved.

      She should just suck it up, paint it over, or add the lettering the county has asked for since the business owner has claimed it’s “just art” and she did it because of her “passion for dogs”.

      Yes, the sign ordinance is kind of a pain. Yes, it could be managed better – but in their efforts to apply consistency throughout the county, this is something they have to do. If the business owner doesn’t like the comprehensive sign plan, then she should have worked to make changes – not just spend the money and paint a mural before she found out if it was ok.

      Lots of other small business owners in the county do make the effort to find out what is ok and what’s not – and when told to make a change, do so. This one – finds a lawyer and gets herself on TV as a downtrodden small business owner. So I guess the rest of the small business owners who do figure it out; who do make the changes if necessary must just be the biggest losers in the county since they wouldn’t take a stand and fight all the rules?

      It’s not just about some cute mural on the side a building – although it does look better than cinderblock….

      • Frank

        Oh, and I’m sure it will just be dandy for all the new businesses trying to apply for signage now – there will be even more scrutiny on plans to ensure the County can’t be accused of subjectivity…great job Wag More Dogs – thanks for the help. All you had to do was to do your homework, ask the right questions, and when told your “art” wasn’t ok, find some cheap art students to help you paint the wording requested – or just paint over it and make it all trees and llamas.

        • Zoning Victim

          It’s this woman’s right to fight the county’s decision in court. Whining that she’s making things difficult for all of the other small business owners is pretty rediculous. As for the county having to be careful not to look like they are applying the law arbitrarily; Melinda Artman, Arlington County’s nightmare of a zoning administrator said that precident doesn’t apply and they take everything on a case by case basis. In other words, fairness across the board isn’t one of her considerations.

          What wording did the county ask her to add, BTW?

          • mehoo

            Of course she can challenge it. And the county can choose not to resist the suit, or change their policy on ads. And county policy is something where considering small business impact is certainly appropriate.

      • Lou

        I think what she should do is put a bunch of windows in that wall and do her grooming right there in front of the windows for all the park users to see. No signage, no “advertising”. No hassle from the sign police.

  • Jenga

    Arlington doesn’t care about free speech. Are they also prepared to fight the other 9 amendments in the bill of rights?

    Then maybe the 14th amendment (birthright citizenship?)

    • mehoo

      Go to law school or read a law book or google “advertising first amendment” and educate yourself, please.

  • Newt

    Great, more taxpayer money down the drain. This lady won’t see a dime of my money!

    • JackFan

      Well – she’ll see more than a dime of mine. Good for her.

      • Newt

        Awesome response! Who do you think pays for this? a couple hundred thousand dollars in legal fees (tax-payer money) for a $4000 dollar sign…..interpretation between free-speach and art, really?

        • Zoning Victim

          AC zoning has been stomping all over people’s rights. I’m sorry that you think I fight over our right to free speech is frivolous, but I think it’s high time that someone put legal pressure on the zoning administration. The zoning administrator consistently violates state law and rewrites the English language in her pursuit to deny everyone on any basis she can find whether it’s protected by state and local laws/ordinances or not. Yes, the zoning ordinance needs rewritten, but in the meantime, we need a reasonable person running zoning. Instead, we have an infamous curmudgeon who consistently picks fights with property owners everywhere she’s worked as a zoning administrator. Best of all, she doesn’t even live in Arlington County.

  • Dan

    “Right now we’re just assessing the case and waiting for the timeline to be established. This is going to be a process.”

    Yup…..piled higher and deeper.
    Just when you think that the county can’t get any dumber…..

  • Mark also

    funny photo of dog staring at tarp

  • Concerned

    I wish the County would settle out of court and be a little more reasonable when it comes to business people who pay county taxes. It will cost us, taxpayers, tons of money to fight this case. The part of Shirlington where the mural is located is the ugliest part of the County. Maybe you should do some clean-up there instead of harassing people.

  • Connecting Dots

    County will undoubtedly follow its established pattern from the Hot Lanes suit and file a counter-claim charging the building owner with “speciesism.”

  • G::NativeArlingtonian

    Our county is run by morons. The better solution would be to make it so a county art league votes on whether the mural is “offensive,” in “poor taste,” advertising, etc. And I put those items in quotes because I know there is subjectiveness there. This county (region) could use some loosening up and some public art would be a good start. Instead they will waste our tax dollars fighting something to fight it. Again, morons.

    • Zoning Victim

      I agree with the county run by morons part, but I fail to see where another committee of morons that you will have to pay big bucks to so they can tell you whether or not you can paint something will help anything. Before long you’ll have to pay them $700 to ask permission to change the color of your house.

  • Pettifogger

    If the County Attorney thinks the case will take about a year, then he’s a complete idiot and they need a new lawyer. The court where the case was filed requires almost every case to go to trial within 6 months of service.

    • mehoo

      That’s when the trial will start. How long will it last? Will it be appealed?

  • The Mothership

    To me it’s a pursuit of happiness issue. You can’t decorate a business as you see fit? If this in fact falls under the sign code, what does the sign code say on the topic of murals? Basically, that she can’t have one unless it’s cats playing? What if the business began boarding cats at a later period. Would she have to reapply for a permit then? Or what if she turned it into a cat boarding business now? Would the owner’s sign code infraction be nullified? Get to work, lawyers!

  • mehoo

    Look at the mural – this is a sign or an ad?

    The county is going to lose this case, as it should.

    The fact that someone found a way to promote her business (maybe) by beautifying the county is great. So what if she’s “getting away” with something? Only bureaucrats would find that to be a problem instead of a solution.

  • mehoo

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