HOUGHTON: Fighting Arlington’s bureaucratic bullies

Doggie day care owner bites City Hall over silly sign code

You don’t have to be a small-business owner like me to understand why I filed a federal lawsuit yesterday against Arlington County, but it helps. Entrepreneurs nationwide are growing sick and tired of menacing government bureaucrats trying to micromanage our lives. All we are trying to do is create jobs for ourselves and others, and all we seem to get from government officials is one petty roadblock after another. We can’t do the simplest thing without first getting some government bureaucrat’s permission in triplicate.

Like many other people in this economy, I recently reinvented myself. I left my 20-year career selling newspaper ads and followed my passion of caring for dogs with the hope of turning it into my next career. For years, I took my own dogs to the Shirlington Dog Park in Arlington, and so, in July 2009, I rented an industrial building and started hiring contractors to reconfigure it to house and groom the dogs I would care for. Because my Wag More Dogs facility is right on the dog park, I decided to cover the bare cinder-block wall on the back of my building with artwork that would beautify the area. For $4,000, I commissioned a local artist to design and paint a picture of cartoon dogs, bones and paw prints that would be approximately 60 feet long and 16 feet high.

Several months after my artwork was complete, Arlington County Zoning Administrator Melinda M. Artman started sending me one e-mail after another making it clear that I could have a mural depicting “anything … EXCEPT something to do with dogs, bones, paw prints, pets, people walking their dogs, etc.” Ms. Artman blocked the business permit and certificate of occupancy I needed to open my business until I covered the mural entirely or changed the dogs and bones to items that were unrelated to my business. Losing money every day I wasn’t open, I covered the mural with an ugly blue tarp, got my certificate of occupancy and got into business.

Every business owner understands the idea of “opportunity costs” - if you spend your time on one thing, it means you can’t spend your time on something else that might be more important, like making sure your business succeeds. Ms. Artman and her staff went out of their way to create enormous opportunity costs for me throughout this process. She sent inspectors back to my business not once, but three times to dictate to me how the tarp must be hung. Just finding nails and screws and using them to attach the tarp took 10 hours of my time and more than $500.

Was my playful mural somehow a public danger? Absolutely not. It is merely paint on a wall of a building that I’m leasing. The only things put in danger when it came to the controversy surrounding my mural were my constitutional rights. America is not supposed to be a nation where I have to get the government’s permission to express myself. And, in this nation, the government can’t make us give up one right - like free speech - to practice another right, like the right to earn an honest living. Yet that is exactly what Arlington County is trying to do. Keep in mind, too: All we’re talking about is a mural with dogs that faced a dog park, for heaven’s sake.

Arlington County and its zoning enforcer have made me feel like a criminal by enforcing a sign code that is unbelievably vague and lacks any common sense. If we are going to protect our rights, we have to be ready to stand up against these unconstitutional laws and the people who mercilessly enforce them.

Thankfully, I’m being represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public-interest law firm that fights on behalf of individuals whose rights are being violated by the government. If it weren’t for IJ, I would have had to give in because zoning officials are that intimidating and that powerful. Arlington County officials have the power to close my doors forever at their whim, and they have shown they are not shy about using that power.

Despite all I have been through, I am glad that this happened to me. Sure, I want the tarp removed and want to keep the mural as it is. But I hope this case will shine a light that lets the public know that this kind of big-government bullying of small business is going on and needs to stop. I hope my case will set a precedent and show that there are other options for small business. I hope my case shows you can fight City Hall and win.

The government decided my mural must be covered, but hopefully, I can win the right to tear down that tarp.

Kim Houghton is the owner of Wag More Dogs in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood. For more information on this lawsuit, visit ij.org/DogMural.

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