City says mural can stay for now

Wise Guy Pizza owner should have gotten permit, but sign may comply with zoning

The city didn’t order the owner of Wise Guy Pizza on 11th Street to remove a partly finished mural on the building, and moreover, the city actually recommends against Bob Goss taking off a caricature of Scarface character Tony Montana eating pizza, as the mural may turn out to be legal — or capable of being made so, the city community development director said Tuesday.

“It (would be) premature,” said Lee Slusser, who said he tried unsuccessfully Monday to contact Goss to discuss the need for a permit, at least.

Solicitor Dan Stants looked into the issue, then emailed City Council with his ideas on the mural, based on the city’s zoning ordinance, so council members could share their thoughts on how to proceed, Stants said Tuesday.

On its face, the mural seems to fit the zoning ordinance definition of a sign, Stants said.

The ordinance says a sign is:

“Any object, device, display or structure, or part thereof, situated outdoors or indoors, which is used to advertise, identify, display, direct, or attract attention to an object, person, institution, organization, business, product, service, event, or location by any means, including words, letters, figures, design, symbols, fixtures, colors, illumination or projected images.”

Goss on Monday said the mural is designed to advertise the presence of his shop, which motorists usually fail to notice because the avenues that come together to form Chestnut Avenue, just past the north-facing shop — plus Chestnut itself — are northbound, so the facade is visible only in their rearview mirrors.

The ordinance allows business signs but places restrictions on their size and placement.

It would probably restrict the size of a sign on the wall where Goss is having the mural painted to about 100 square feet — equivalent to 10 by 10, Slusser said.

Yet some sign is probably needed there, Slusser said. “It’s a perfectly reasonable request,” he said.

The ordinance exempts some kinds of signs from the restrictions, Stants pointed out.

One of those exemptions is for “works of art.”

In the first place, the mural is not a “sign,” and so doesn’t come under any permitting requirements, said Goss’ lawyer Steve Passarello.

“But even if by some stretch of the imagination it qualifies as a sign, it’s exempt because it’s a work of art,” Passarello said.

“The city has no basis to stop it,” Passarello said.

A different kind of exemption — one that could also do away with the size restriction — can be obtained from the Zoning Hearing Board in the form of a variance, when there is a “hardship” with the property in question, provided the hardship isn’t caused by the owner, Slusser said.

Goss could make a good case that the flow of traffic away from his facade is a hardship, Slusser suggested.

“With hardship and a variance, the whole sign would be perfectly legal,” Slusser said.

The entire controversy could have been avoided had Goss come to the city before he began the mural, Stants said.

“That’s the root of the problem,” Stants said.

Property owners need to check the law to ensure that changes they intend to make are permitted, before they make those changes, Stants said.

“After the fact, after you get caught, is not the time,” he said.

The city is being portrayed in comments on media reports “as if it’s trying to hurt small businesses, but that’s not true,” Stants said.

The regulations that may apply in these kinds of situations aren’t in place to harass but to deal with past problems, he said.

The regulations that underlie the current case probably relate to images on buildings that “nobody (wanted) to see,” he said.

The city intervened after someone complained Friday about the mural, and it’s the city’s responsibility to follow up, Stants said.

The first move would be to talk to the business owner, but that proved problematic for the city, Stants said.

Passarello attempted to cast doubt on that claim, saying Goss told him he had multiple text conversations with Slusser — one of which Passarello said he witnessed.

Goss doesn’t seem ready to concede anything.

“Unless they back down, we’re not backing down,” Passarello said..