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American Legion Post 163 files suit over mural decision by Friday Harbor Town Council

The Friday Harbor Town Council may have expected to see a second attempt at creating a very large mural, toned down and with perhaps a little less personality.

What it got was a lawsuit instead.

“I didn’t want it to come to this,” American Legion Post 163 Commander Shannon Plummer said of the legal challenge. “My hope was that the colors red, white and blue wouldn’t be consider ‘offensive’ and not relevant in the U.S.A. or to the town of Friday Harbor.”

Plummer said that without any assurance that an alternative design would not be rejected as well, the Legion opted to take the town to court over its denial of a conditional-use permit for a 1,200-foot mural, as first proposed for approval.

The hearing gets under way Aug. 29 in San Juan County Superior Court.

Designed by Friday Harbor artist Mike Scott, the mural, described by some as “jarring” and by others as a “bright billboard,” is intended to cover the concrete retention wall behind the Legion’s First Street building, below the back deck, facing the harbor. It would overlook the parking lot, public marina and offices or the Port of Friday Harbor, which let its objections be known when a permit application was first considered and then rejected by the council May 15.

Port Commissioner Mike Ahrenius said the mural and its large-scale bright colors and abstract design are “out of keeping” with goals of the town and the port, and others, for the waterfront.

“It will be at odds with the relaxed, historic feel and look that is currently being promoted by the city, byways, port and visitors bureau,”  Ahrenius read from a letter submitted by the port. “If the town grants this application it will set a precedent in the town core and historical district for other installations of this type.”

In a 4-1 decision, the council rejected the application. Councilman Noel Monin, who cast the sole vote in favor of the permit, cautioned against putting too many hurdles or legal restraints on artistic expression.

“I don’t have a prescription for our town and I don’t have a prescription of what art is, I just know what I appreciate,” he said. “To me, this (mural) is not offensive, and it doesn’t evoke controversy.”

Murals are considered “signs” under town code, and, depending on size, can require a conditional-use permit. Approval or denial of a conditional-use permit allows for council consideration of aesthetics and its impact. The clash over the mural’s aesthetics prompted renewed discussion for a creation of a town arts committee that would review and presumably weigh in on the appropriateness of a piece of art that falls under the council’s purview.

As part of its legal appeal, the Legion, represented by Friday Harbor attorney Lawrence Delay, claims the town lacks any criteria to judge whether a work of art, or mural, is “compatible with the surrounding community,”  and that decisions on approval or denial are “arbitrary and capricious.” It also questions whether the town sign ordinance should apply to an art mural, how the public interest is served by allowing the council do decide on aesthetics, and claims the permit’s denial is a violation of free speech.

At a July 17 meeting, in which the council approved “findings of fact and conclusions of law” of its denial of the permit, several mural supporters criticized the council for a lack of patriotism. Councilman Steve Hushabeck, who previously labeled the mural as “a little strong” and “a little bold,” but noted the retention wall is a good location for patriotic-themed mural, contested those claims.

“I don’t think any of us objected to something of a patriotic theme for a mural there, as it was presented to us,” Hushabeck said. “I think what we objected to was the abstract concept and hoped that they would come back with something a little more even-keeled, a little more acceptable to the entire community.”

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