Thursday, March 28, 2013
WALLA WALLA — The octopus is no more.
A painting firm contracted by the city of Walla Walla blanketed the 550-square-foot mural on the facade of Inland Octopus with a terra cotta earth tone as the sun was coming up this morning.
For the city, the 20-or-so-minute paint job was an end to the 21/2-year effort to bring the mural into compliance with the municipal sign code.
“The fight is over,” city attorney Tim Donaldson said this morning.
However, Inland Octopus toy store owner Bob Catsiff wasn’t ready to concede.
“I’m not going to say it’s over or it’s not over,” he said.
Catsiff found out the giant painting of the octopus peeking over a castle wall with a rainbow overhead had been covered through an online post from the Union-Bulletin this morning. Around 7 a.m. he went to see for himself.
In a sidewalk conversation across from his Main Street business he said he wasn’t completely surprised by the city’s move but was disappointed that he hadn’t received a response to a letter he had sent to Donaldson earlier this week. The letter raised Catsiff’s concerns over selective enforcement of the sign code. Catsiff said he sent it in an effort to make contact and work with the city.
But officials had another way of looking at the letter — as a deviation of the overriding violation upheld in numerous court decisions.
“We do enforce our sign code,” City Manager Nabiel Shawa said. “We see this is an attempt to deflect public attention away from the core issue.”
Donaldson said examples of other signs not in compliance provided by Catsiff — such as Banner Bank’s downtown sign — are permitted, grandfathered or have been otherwise approved.
“It’s like the guy who argues that he got a speeding ticket by saying you didn’t get the 50 other speeding drivers who went by,” Donaldson said. “It was a major violation on Main Street after he was issued a (document) that told him he had to get permits.”
Furthermore, Donaldson said, the issue of selective enforcement was addressed in court and not considered an issue.
The mural was painted at Catsiff’s leased toy store, 7 E. Main St., over the Labor Day weekend in 2010. Catsiff did not have permits or approval, and was ordered to remove it or bring it into compliance with the city’s sign code. The city also ordered a $100-a-day fine, starting Oct. 14, for every day the mural remained.
Donaldson said this morning those penalties total around $88,500. With the $1,525 quoted by the paint company, fines will be around $90,000. When he receives an invoice from the paint company Donaldson said he will send the final bill to Catsiff’s attorney. Collection will be handled through the city’s finance department, he said.
Catsiff appealed the city’s action all the way up to the nation’s highest court. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his bid to review a Washington state Court of Appeals decision allowing the city to enforce its sign ordinance.
Consequently, the city said it intended to enforce a hearing examiner’s order that the mural be brought into compliance with size and height restrictions within 30 days.
Shawa said he had not received a copy of Catsiff’s letter though he had heard about it. He did not interpret it as an attempt to work together.
“It was not an offer to sit down and discuss how he would go about abating the mural,” Shawa said.
“It wasn’t our desire to have to abate the violation in this manner, but it’s also clear that Mr. Catsiff was not going to take the steps to doing so himself.”
Shawa said the city contracted with Kennewick’s Columbia Basin Painting, opting to contract with an out-of-town business rather than a local one.
“It seemed the prudent thing, rather than drawing fire on a local contractor,” he said.
The timing of the painting early in the morning was also deliberate. “It was in the interest of public safety and minimizing disruption to downtown business,” he said. “We also do night work for utilities for the same reasons downtown.”
As for the color choice — which was panned by many residents active on social networks this morning — was selected because the city code encourages earth tone colors. “It was something that would blend in,” Shawa said. Returning to the original white facade seemed too stark, he said.
In the court of public opinion, the mural had become a beloved piece of art to many local residents and visitors. Hundreds took to Facebook and Twitter this morning to express disappointment at the loss of the whimsical mural. Some said the decision to cover it was in conflict with the city’s Rand McNally designation two years ago as “America’s Friendliest Small Town.”
“We understand it’s an emotional issue with a core group of citizens,” Shawa said. He added that the development of the sign code was publicly inclusive with business and citizen involvement.
He said the painting could be revived to fit in with the city’s sign code.
“I think there’s a bit of confusion that it’s over the content,” he said. “He could go get the permit today and get the same sign reduced to the requirements for size and height.”