A tree mural painted on the side of an art shop can continue to call Atascadero home, the City Council unanimously decided Tuesday.
The decision passed 4-0, with Councilman Tom O’Malley absent from the meeting.
At issue was the fate of the colorful mural seen on the side of The ARTery art supply store at 5890 Traffic Way.
Its appearance downtown in May prompted a dispute over whether a mural could be considered a sign, after a city design committee that evaluates and permits signs deemed the 600-square-foot mixed-media piece uncharacteristic of downtown and said it had to go.
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Under discussion was the fact that Atascadero’s city laws don’t clearly define what is art and what is a sign.
The rules are so ambiguous, in fact, that when City Attorney Brian Pierik took a closer look at the legality of enforcing city regulation — after a local attorney said he would sue the city over the sign committee’s decision — he ultimately recommended the council drop the issue.
Fewer people than expected spoke at Tuesday’s meeting about the matter, which grew into a hot-button debate over property rights, free speech and the value of having a diverse array of art in a community.
Many of the mural’s supporters rallied via a Facebook page titled “Rally to Save the Tree Mural,” which drew hundreds of followers. Some opposition also appeared on the page.
Although ARTery owners Bobbi Nuñez and her husband, Bill Arkfeld, were tasked with quelling some inappropriate comments, they say the community’s reaction to the issue has been eye-opening.
“That’s where the hope comes in,” Arkfeld said Tuesday after the vote. “We want interesting and colorful and artistic. I really hope this is the beginning of that.”
The couple said they’re pleased the mural will remain in the community but they are glad the debate is finally over.
The mural issue isn’t new for Atascadero.
A similar debate in 2010 challenged the City Council to determine whether a pair of brightly colored bicycles painted on the K-Man Cycle & Run building along Highway 101 constituted a sign.
At the time, the council opted to skip changing its sign laws but allowed the K-Man mural to stay.
On Tuesday night, many agreed that the council needs to fix its sign law now. Pierik suggested that the council direct staff to look into ways to clarify existing city rules for noncommercial signs.
But council members agreed that they’d prefer a complete overhaul of the ordinance in the future instead of focusing on small tweaks. A timeline for that project was not set.
“I think it was a learning curve for all of us,” Mayor Bob Kelley said of the issue.