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City should revise its rules for murals

Editor’s note: A version of the following was read at the Ashland City Council meeting Tuesday.

The Book Exchange is 43 years old. My wife and I purchased it in May after having worked there for the previous four years. I have over 30 years in the book business. 

For its first 40 years,the Book Exchange, which began as Edna's Book Exchange, was next to Standing Stone restaurant. When we moved to Pioneer Way between Lithia Way and North Main Street, the mural on the outside wall of the building was already in place.

The age of the mural is uncertain. The consensus is it’s probably about 10 years old. No one has been able to find out who painted it.

When Cindy Munroe, the previous bookstore owner, moved to the current location she erected a new sign on the front of the building and had a sign painted in the window. The city approved both without citing the mural as a problem. At a later date Cindy was cited by the city for putting a neon sign in the front window. No mention was made of the mural or its being out of compliance.

The mural became an issue in July when, on my behalf, Deluxe Awnings applied for a permit to replace the existing awning. They made the city aware of the mural. City officials gave me the following options: Paint over the mural or get the building owner to apply to the Arts Commission for acceptance of the mural as public art.

The second condition would require waiting on the mural until after the Arts Commission made its decision. I could not afford to wait for public hearings on the mural. The old awning was in tatters making the building look shabby.

After I agreed I would paint over the mural, the city granted me an extension on the painting, delaying it until after the awning was installed and the existing Book Exchange sign (a sheet of plywood) was removed to allow me to determine the condition of the facade behind the sign and decide whether or not I'd have to paint the entire front of the building or just cover the mural.

At this point my customers stepped in, objecting to me having to paint over the mural. There were calls to city officials and to the newspaper. Many people were flabbergasted, felt the city was acting in an arbitrary fashion, and that that eliminating a charming piece of art like this mural defied common sense and undercut city's goals of encouraging public art.

I decided I would attempt to go through the process of applying to the Arts Commission. Unfortunately, after building owner Sanjeev Sunny of Medford consulted his legal counsel about the form, which requires him to grant a five-year easement to the city to maintain the art, he declined to proceed. I don't blame him.

These are the issues as I see them:

• The legal agreement for murals is constructed exclusively for expensive, high-end art. There is no provision for smaller and simpler projects.

• For smaller murals, like this one, the requirement that that building owner grant the city a long-term easement is a bit excessive. It appears that all the city wants is permission to maintain the mural. The easement stipulation may make sense for large and expensive projects, but for a simple piece of what is essentially folk art like this, it's legal overkill.

• There is no provision for dealing with already existing murals or other artwork, only for applying for permission to create new ones.

I propose that the city:

• Temporarily suspend enforcement of the ordinance regarding existing murals to allow time to reconsider and modify the ordinance.

• Conduct a survey to find out how many murals and art works like the one on the Book Exchange already exist.

• Expand the ordinance to include and encourage smaller projects.

• Simplify and ease up on the legal agreements for such projects.

• Grandfather existing art and murals that meet the basic artistic criteria of the expanded ordinance for small projects.

Roy Laird owns the Ashland Book Exchange at 90 N. Pioneer St. in Ashland.