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The Sign of Signs to Come

Court Ruling May Set Murals Free

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In an unexpected victory for local artists, a circuit court judge ruled on May 8 that Portland could conceivably produce more wall murals—without having to allow for more commercial billboards.

For years, Portland muralists have been held hostage by the city's strict commercial sign code, which was designed to limit the number of billboards inside city limits. When the courts ruled in 1999 that the city couldn't constitutionally make a distinction between mural art and commercial signs, then-Mayor Vera Katz led the city council on a hard-line charge against billboards—the nearly complete disappearance of mural art was merely collateral damage.

But last week, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus made a ruling in a longstanding case between the city and billboard titan Clear Channel, clarifying a previous ruling. The city is potentially capable, Marcus ruled, of having different laws for murals and commercial signs, but only if the laws don't discriminate based on content.

So, for instance, city council could allow more freedoms for murals, and fewer for billboards, if the law was based on things like mediums, or business models, or even height off the ground.

In a ruling that was a pleasant surprise to mural supporters, Judge Marcus declared that "nothing that I am aware of prevents the city from 'preferring' art over commercial speech." Marcus even denied Clear Channel's $1 million demand from the city.

"We've been hoping to get this kind of language for six or seven years," says Joe Cotter, who intervened in the case on behalf of muralists. "This will give us and the city an opportunity to come up with some kind of ordinance that allows us to have more murals."

Already, representatives from the offices of Commissioners Sam Adams and Randy Leonard, the mayor's office, the Planning Bureau, the Bureau of Development Services, and the city attorney's office have met to talk about drafting a new pro-mural ordinance.

Four years ago, Leonard attempted to strike a compromise—a "stipulated agreement"—in the law that would have allowed for more murals, but still kept them under the commercial sign code. He was blocked in no uncertain terms by Mayor Katz. Ironically, had Leonard prevailed, the legal case wouldn't have advanced, and muralists wouldn't have gotten last week's sweeping ruling.

"For us, having this language is a thousand times better than a stipulated agreement," Cotter says.

A new mural ordinance could come forward within the next few months.

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