Town, Legion strike agreement, controversial mural gets green light

The photo above is an artist rendition of the mural that will be painted on the concrete retaining wall of the American Legion hall in Friday Harbor.

The wait no longer depends on court calendars or outcome of a land-use appeal.

It now depends on the weather.

With a clean slate and a green light from the town of Friday Harbor, American Legion Post 163 will begin work on a mural spanning the length of the retaining wall behind its 1st Street home once the conditions outdoors become more conducive to applying paint on the surface of the 1,200-foot concrete buttress.

“Our goal all along has been to put something on a really ugly wall that will mean something to the community,” longtime Legion member Peter DeLorenzi said of the mural and its design, a depiction of the American flag in bright and bold colors of red, white and blue. “I’m sure it’ll be something everyone will be proud of.”

In a unanimous decision, the town Council Feb. 5 overturned an earlier denial of a conditional-use permit as part of a negotiated settlement that will allow the Legion to proceed with painting the weather-worn retention wall in a design to be executed as first conceived.

For its part, the Legion agreed to follow through with its submitted design, created by local artist Michael Scott, and drop its appeal. That appeal had been pending in San Juan Superior Court for the past five months.

Meanwhile, the newly created Friday Harbor Arts Commission met for the first time Feb. 3. The seven-member panel of volunteers, appointed Jan. 22 by the town mayor, is tasked with advising the town council on the cultivation, acquisition and placement of public art.

Administrator Duncan Wilson said town officials concluded a negotiated settlement would be preferable to what it might take in time, energy and money to continue to contest the matter in court. He believes that the Legion had reached a similar conclusion.

In addition, he said the community would be poorly served by having two influential entities remain at odds over artistic expression and interpretation of town code.

“The legion and the town are important organizations and for us to be at odds is not a good thing for anyone,” Wilson said. “I think the mayor felt the same way.”

Still, the town may have found itself on the short end of the legal stick.

In its appeal, the Legion, represented by Friday Harbor attorney Lawrence Delay, claimed 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 questioned 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. It claimed that denial of the mural violated the constitutional right of free speech as well.

The council, in prelude to ratifying the settlement, also agreed without dissent to enact an “interim” sign ordinance for the purpose of evaluating related applications while town officials undertake a thorough review of the rules governing signs. Wilson said elements of the existing code, such as definitions and the process under which a proposal is reviewed, are in need of clarification or a few “fixes.”

The interim ordinance, which can be in effect up to six months, does not apply to the Legion’s mural, Wilson noted.

Under town development codes, murals are considered “signs” and, depending on size, can require a conditional-use permit. Approval or denial of a conditional-use permit allows for consideration by the council of aesthetics, compatibility and degree of impact that a mural might have on the town ambience.

Members of the council cited the abstract nature of the mural and questioned the use of such bright, bold colors, and had expected the Legion to offer up a revision, when the permit application was rejected in a 4-1 vote at a May 15 public hearing.

Post Commander Shannon Plummer, a commercial painter by trade, said the initial brightest of the mural colors would soften with the passage of time and exposure in the wind, rain and sunlight.

“The colors will tone down in time,” he assured.

Wilson added that the town would benefit by making in clear in its sign ordinance those elements that make one mural a work of art versus another whose purpose is to promote a commercial interest.