Something that should be reasonably simple — decorating the exterior of a building with an artistic mural — has turned awfully complicated.
Case in point: Last week, it appeared we were about to see a resolution of the stand-off between the city of Atascadero and the owners of a downtown art store who had a big tree mural painted on an exterior wall of the building.
The city’s Design Review Committee — which had initially found the mural to be out of character for the downtown — was prepared to re-evaluate its denial of a permit for the project.
But then, an attorney stepped in on behalf of the owners; he contended that the mural is protected under his clients’ First Amendment right to free speech, and that a design committee has no jurisdiction over what can or cannot be painted.
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Now, we have a timeout while attorneys study the matter.
So be it. Better to resolve this now than to fight the same battle every time someone in Atascadero wants to decorate a building’s exterior with a painting of a tree or a whale or a bear or a bicycle or a vineyard or well, you get the picture.
We should point out that Atascadero isn’t alone in debating this issue; across the nation, cities large and small have been grappling with how to regulate murals without stepping on First Amendment rights.
But this doesn’t have to be a legal tug of war. Several communities in California and elsewhere have developed programs that promote murals on both public and private buildings as a way to instill community pride, spruce up property and attract tourists.
And we aren’t talking artistic free-for-all, either; there are still applications to be filed and requirements to be met.
Some cities, for example, require applicants to hold community meetings to review the design for a mural and gather input from neighbors. And many require applicants to agree to maintain a mural for a certain period of time, such as five years.
If other cities can find a way to nurture and promote murals — while still setting some guidelines — there’s no reason Atascadero can’t do the same.
For an example of a successful mural program, we need look no farther than the city of Lompoc, located in neighboring Santa Barbara County. A mural program began there in the 1980s as a way to revitalize an ailing downtown. Today, there are more than 30 large murals, most dealing with the city’s history.
The program is under the umbrella of the city, though day-to-day operations are in the hands of the Lompoc Mural Society. The group raises funds; locates sites for murals; develops design ideas; interviews and hires artists.
Hayward, located in the Bay Area, is another example of a thriving mural program. It was launched in 2009 as a way to not only beautify buildings, but also to combat graffiti. According to an article in Western City magazine, 11 murals have been completed, and not one of them has been “tagged.”
Not only has Hayward allowed murals, it’s encouraged them by allocating tens of thousands of dollars in redevelopment money to the effort, with the expectation that it would cut down on a $1 million per year graffiti eradication bill.
We aren’t advocating that the city of Atascadero make a huge monetary investment in murals, or immediately embark on an extensive program like the one in Lompoc.
But if there is an interest in murals on downtown buildings — and there certainly seems to be — why not find a way to harness that?
If it hasn’t already done so, we strongly urge the city to survey what successful “mural” communities are doing, particularly in California. Then, design a program tailored to Atascadero.
Far from detracting from the city’s character, we believe lively, interesting murals would only enhance it.