by Dan Richardson

Nineteen murals of flowers and sports scenes grace tall buildings in downtown Spokane. Look quick: The owners plan to repaint these murals as wall advertisements as soon as advertisers sign on.

That is, unless City Hall steps in. City officials insist the murals must remain as they are -- art without any commercial message.

Advertising company Obie Media owns the murals, or "wallscapes." One, at 221 West Riverside, shows a couple fishing below the Spokane Falls. At 515 West Riverside, some Hoopsfesters dribble a ball a hundred feet above the streets.

These wallscapes are the focus of a legal wrestling match with the city of Spokane, a match as much over property rights and beautification as over paint. It's a contest of private interests versus public space that's being played out in communities across the country, as in San Francisco, where voters recently approved a ban on new billboard construction. In Spokane, the debate's apex was a county District Court judge's recent ruling.

Problem is, both sides interpret the March 1 ruling as a victory.

One wallscape was repainted into an advertisement for Maple Street Press last spring. The judge says that one, repainted before the City Council passed a revised sign ordinance this fall, is a legal ad. But a larger question remains: Can the other 18 be repainted, too?

Ah, there's the muddle.

Obie Media "won the battle but lost the war," says Assistant City Attorney Timothy Szambelan of Judge Harold Clarke's ruling. To repaint the wallscapes would now require a permit from the city, which isn't issuing any, says Szambelan.

Permit, schmer-mit, says Obie Media.

The wallscapes were all up prior to the revised ordinance, and the judge's ruling means they're grandfathered in, contends Ray Hart, the company's Spokane-based corporate development manager: "We believe we can repaint 18 other walls."

The 19 wallscapes, painted three years ago, were never intended as permanent public art. They were always long-term investments, designs for outdoor advertising, says Hart. "That's the business we're in."

Wallscapes are really a kind of wall art regardless of their content, says Hart, a former Montana businessman who's fond of making historical analogies. "It can be argued they started in France with the cave paintings."

Well, maybe. Painted wall advertisements certainly aren't new to Spokane. Numerous ads for Coca-Cola, cigars and other products were once painted on buildings; though weathered and faded, they are still visible on old brick walls around the city.

Obie Media is based in Eugene, Ore., with operations centered in the Northwest. It sells ads on bus benches, billboards and more than 9,300 transit vehicles -- including Spokane Transit Authority buses. Having painted wall ads on buildings in Portland and Seattle, Obie officials sent painters to Spokane in the late '90s. The wallscapes they painted range from 300 to more than 1,000 square feet of coverage.

One wallscape depicted a scene of Bloomsday runners in the 300 block of West Riverside. It faced a bus stop where Suzanne Markham, a Spokane graphic designer, often stopped. Coincidentally, Markham was one of the region's residents mobilizing against "billboard blight," pushing city and council officials for increasingly strict regulation of outdoor commercial advertisements. Markham is now president of Citizens for a Scenic Spokane, an affiliate of the national group Scenic America.

So Markham watched with some interest as Obie painted its wallscapes. Later, in the late summer of 1999, Markham saw Obie Media affix four-by-eight foot oval banners to their wallscapes. The banners were erected without city permits.

Markham cheered in early 2000, when the city enacted a moratorium on off-premise commercial signs -- signs like billboards and, officials intended, like Obie's wallscapes. Obie Media and city officials, meanwhile, were corresponding over the oval banners bolted to the wallscapes, because the city said they were illegal.

Then, in April 2001, painters erased the Bloomsday-themed wallscape Markham had seen from her bus stop. In its place, they painted a large rectangular white ad for Maple Street Press.

That, says Markham, was too much. "My fear was we would end up with 19 painted billboards instead of 19 artistic murals."

The transformation from art to ad roused her fears, which are shared by groups like Scenic America. Her passion for the great billboard debate intensified.

It's less a debate than a collision of two compelling ideas: From one perspective (Obie Media's), billboards, wallscapes and the like are necessary means of attracting customers. It's the free market, with all its messy commercialization, ripe with choices, dizzy with advertising. And besides, signs are private property, says Ken Kline, vice president of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America.

"The property rights issue would go back to the original founding of the country," says Klein. "When the leaders of the colonies got together and said, 'How are we going to construct our society?' they put in the Bill of Rights, and specifically the Fifth Amendment."

To the scenics, though, the market shouldn't have unfettered access to all public space in the name of business. Billboards and wallscapes are blight, they say. As Scenic America's Web site has it, they're "Reclaiming the beauty of your community from the billboard operators," who run businesses producing "litter on a stick."

When Markham saw Obie Media repainting one of its wallscapes into an advertisement, she saw red. She believed the ad violated the city moratorium on new commercial billboards. City officials agreed, according to interviews and court records. Code enforcement officials ordered the wallscape's removal in May, but Obie Media refused. In August, the city issued tickets to Obie Media and the building's owner, who leases the space to Obie.

The tickets charged that, without a permit, the wallscape ad had no "legal right to be displayed in the City of Spokane."

Judge Clarke heard the case in a bench trial (without a jury) on February 7, court records show, and he issued his ruling on March 1.

Did that clear things up? Hardly.

Clarke's ruling has two points:

- First, the wallscapes were not technically billboards or signs regulated by the city under the 1999 law, when they were painted.

- The oval banners bolted to the wallscapes are, however, ads and require city permits.

The city now demands that Obie Media remove its banners from the wallscapes by Friday. Hart says the company will comply.

Both sides also agree that under Clarke's ruling, the Maple Street Press wallscape-turned-advertisement is fine, as is. But Obie Media and the City of Spokane depart on the issue of the remaining 18 wallscapes. Hart says they'll eventually be repainted, while several city officials say Obie can't do that. The city council passed a revised, tighter sign ordinance in October banning new off-premise billboards, and also redefining billboards to include commercial murals.

Markham sees a victory for beautification by limiting new billboards, and the City Council itself wrote, in passing the new ban, that such signage "can be among the biggest contributors to [a community's] negative imagery."

For Hart, these statements evoke his sense of history, reminding him of a more infamous regime of central planning: "It seems to me there was this country in the '30s that wanted to tell people how to look and what was beautiful."

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