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Dog Mural: Art Or Advertisement?

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The mural was completed in May 2010 by local artist Mark Gutierrez.
Institute for Justice
The mural was completed in May 2010 by local artist Mark Gutierrez.

In Virginia, the owner of a small business in Shirlington has filed a federal free speech lawsuit against Arlington County. Kim Houghton filed the suit regarding a mural she commissioned on the outside wall of her dog-grooming business, Wag More Dogs.

Wag More Dogs' back wall faces Shirlington's popular dog park, and Houghton had what she thought was a great idea: a giant mural depicting cartoon dogs.

"I thought it was something very nice that would be pleasing and a joy for them to look at as they were walking by," she says.

Houghton spent $4,000 for an artist, and painting was completed.

But county zoning soon informed her that the painting violated the county's sign ordinance, and she would have to take it down or cover it up.

Eventually they told her she could keep the painting, if she simply added the words "Welcome to Shirlington's Canine Community Area."

"Arlington County is essentially saying that your mural is so wonderful, we'd like to make it into our sign, at your expense. So a sign is really OK here, as long as they own it," Houghton says.

Mary Curtius, media relations manager for Arlington County, says county staff were surprised to here about the lawsuit today, since they felt they had offered Houghton several options.

"Right now, it's a mural of dogs, on business that caters to dogs...That clearly falls within the description of a sign under our ordinance," Curtius says.

She says businesses are allowed 60 square feet of sign space. The Wag More Dogs painting is 16-by-60 feet.

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