Kim Houghton, the founder of Arlington’s grooming and boarding facility Wag More Dogs, ran into trouble before her business was even officially opened in 2010. The former Washington Post advertising representative had excitedly commissioned a 900 square foot mural on the side of the building facing a popular dog park, which featured a pack of cartoon dogs frolicking amidst stylized bones and paw prints. However, the Arlington County zoning board quickly stepped in to inform the entrepreneur that her mural, due to its subject matter, constituted an advertisement for her business, and in doing so, violated size regulations. The county specifies that businesses limit their promotional images to 60 square feet, a regulation that the 60 foot long, 16 foot high painting clearly exceeded.
The county proposed several ways to remedy the situation. They suggested that Houghton either cover over the mural, add a four foot high text reading “Welcome to Shirlington Park’s Community Canine Area” (in order to render the image a county-related sign), or face fines and possible closure of her facility. Houghton chose instead to file a federal lawsuit in December of 2010, claiming that the county’s mandate violated her First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the mural was covered with a tarp and business proceeded as usual. However, the suit was dismissed, and a subsequent appeal in June 2011 was equally ineffective. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Arlington’s ordinance, stating that since the mural featured images of the business’s primary clientele, and furthermore, that the canines pictured were clearly based on the cartoon dogs which make up Wag More Dogs’ logo, the mural was indeed a promotion of the facility.
Two years after Wag More Dogs’ grand opening and its incitement of legal controversy, Houghton has finally accepted that she has little chance of defending her mural from the zoning board. On September 25th, workers began whitewashing the cartoon canines. A new mural, free of potential doggie propaganda, is in the works. A statement from the Institute of Justice, the law firm that represented Houghton, can be found here.