Federal Judge Dismisses Dog Mural Challenge

Arlington dog park caught in the middle of legal fight

Friday, Feb 11, 2011  |  Updated 6:21 PM EDT
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Is It Art or an Advertisement?

NBCWashington.com

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An Arlington business owner fighting to keep a mural on the side of her building hit a roadblock in court Friday.

The U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia sided with Arlington County, and dismissed a challenge to the Arlington County sign law.  At issue: Whether "Wag More Dogs" has the right to display a giant mural that overlooks Shirlington's dog park. 

Dog owners who frequent the popular dog park in Arlington can only get a peek of the mural underneath the massive blue tarp. In August, the cartoon images of dogs and bones were on full display until the county ordered it to be covered.

 “It’s ridiculous,” said dog owner Youness Poukhlifi. “I think the county should have more things to worry about than a sign of dogs.”
 
Arlington County believes the mural is an advertisement for Wag More Dogs, the pet day care that put the mural on the side of its business. The county’s lawyer said the mural is 15 times bigger than the county sign code permits.
 
But Kim Houghton, who paid an artist $4,000 to paint the mural, said it’s not an ad.  
 
“I purposely went out of my way to make sure there was nothing that was going to say Wag More Dogs,” said Houghton. “There were no words on it to make it a sign because I was doing a mural. I thought I was fine.”
 
Houghton took her fight all the way to federal court, claiming her First Amendment rights have been violated.
 
Dog owners who talked to NBC Washington in the mainly industrial area didn’t see the mural as a big deal.

“This is a dog park. What could be more appropriate than to have pictures of dogs up?” said Janet Damelin.

“Aesthetically, it looks a lot nicer with the mural than covered up or just cinder blocks,” said Robyn Krugman. “Then you have to question, Well, why isn’t anyone saying anything about the next building or the next building?”

 
But according to Muddy Mutt, the neighboring dog wash business, the county also made them paint over images of dogs on the outside of their building. So they invited graffiti artists to pain their own murals instead.
 
Houghton said the county gave her the option to keep the mural in place only if she painted 4-foot-high letters at the top of the mural reading “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area.” Houghton said that would cost an extra $7,000, something she’s not willing to do. 

Houghton's attorney Robert Frommer said Arlington's law violates first amendment rights.

“Arlington County’s sign law unconstitutionally allows government officials to play art critic,” Frommer said.  He says they will appeal the decision.

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