Whitefish Sign Law Encouraging Blandness

By Kellyn Brown

The hammer that is the Whitefish sign ordinance is, once again, swinging wildly. This time, no real lives are in danger – just a rosy mural on the side of a local café – a sharp contrast to a previous kerfuffle involving the dubious law. Then, North Valley Hospital officials had to convince the city council that if people couldn’t see their sign they could die.

You see, the owner of Mrs. Spoonover’s, which is at a new location on the corner of Second Street East and Spokane Avenue, allowed artists to paint an ice cream cone, doughnut and other delights on the side of her building. Soon the pressing question arose over whether this was simply a work of art, or an advertisement. The city chose the latter, which would make it a blatant violation of the sign ordinance.

City Attorney John Phelps sent a letter to shop owner Judy Scallen explaining as much. The mural, it read, is a sign “used to advertise or draw attention to your business,” and the city gave her 15 days to paint over it. Scallen has refused.

The ordinance that limits the size of signs in Whitefish is a convoluted one. There are different rules for different districts and exceptions for things such as religious symbols, commemorative plaques and, yes, “works of art” like murals; but those, alas, can’t be used “as an advertising device.” The city is then entrusted to decide what is art, an unenviable position, since no one really knows the answer to that.

This is not to say the sign ordinance isn’t well intentioned. I believe it is. Its aim, like those in many towns of similar size and character, is to preserve the aesthetics of a city that relies so much on tourism, while providing clear views of the natural surroundings.

Yet this sure looks like the council is wielding an abnormally strong arm. After all, the ice cream painting simply covered up another painting of a film canister at the former photo shop. Even if that first mural was grandfathered in before the ordinance passed, I doubt tourists will be aghast over its charming replacement.

But Whitefish doesn’t want to appear lax or inconsistent. Allowing the hospital to increase the size of its sign took some arm-twisting and graphic testimonials, including one involving a man who had almost cut off his finger and had to stop by a gas station for directions to the emergency room. Still, some critics viewed that as special treatment. And if that case was a barometer, it would be safe to assume the ice cream mural is a goner.

A petition has been circulating to save the mural. About 150 signatures, many of them from children, have been collected so far. An attorney has also requested a hearing in front of city officials to argue on Scallen’s behalf.

“I think Whitefish is out of control,” Scallen said recently.

I think, at the very least, if a blank wall replaces the mural it would signal a town that has worked doggedly to preserve its unique character has instead begun to go bland.