High Springs kickstarts draft mural ordinance  

Commissioner Ross Ambrose speaks during High Springs July 28 regular
Commissioner Ross Ambrose speaks during High Springs July 28 regular meeting with Commissioner Linda Jones, left, and Commissioner Katherine Weitz, right. (Photo by Seth Johnson)

The City of High Springs put a mural ordinance in motion at its regular meeting on Thursday, continuing the community conversation on murals that has consumed public interest this year.  

The ordinance will head to the Plan Board before returning to the city commission for a first and second reading. The ordinance wording could morph through the process, and opposing language already exists in the draft approved on Thursday.  

Based on previous commission conversations, City Attorney Scott Walker drafted a mural ordinance that he said would survive legal scrutiny. The topic of murals runs into freedom of speech issues contained in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Because of that basis, Walker said the commission must tread with care. 

“Whenever you’re drafting an ordinance such as this, there are a number of standards you have to look to before you enact such an ordinance,” Walker said.  

First, Walker said the ordinance must remain content neutral. The commissioners and community heard about this restriction at a workshop in February.  

Unless a mural wanders into vulgar, defamatory or pornographic territory, the commission has little to no control over the content. Walker illustrated with a U.S. Supreme Court case where a city commission attempted to regulate a mural that criticized the commission itself. 

In another case, the city of Skokie, Illinois, tried to stop a Neo-Nazi parade from coming through, but again, the city failed in front of the U.S. Supreme Court because of the content-neutral restrictions.  

Second, the city cannot set overcomplicated restrictions on the application procedure, excluding a mural from the outset because of the process.  

“You cannot have a mural ordinance such that there is unbridled governmental restrictions or ability to either grant or deny the permit,” Walker said. “That is going to be unconstitutional prior restraint.” 

Lastly, Walker said the city cannot ban all wording. However, many cities restrict the amount of wording, and the ordinance he brought forward capped wording at 10% of the entire mural. The ordinance also prohibits commercial text. 

In the ordinance, murals can fill 100% of a wall that is 15 feet or shorter. A mural over 15 feet high may only fill 50% of a wall, and the ordinance places a hard stop at 30-foot-high murals.  

Commissioner Kathrine Weitz offered a more restrictive option of 20 feet. The Plan Board can give its input between the two before the ordinance returns.  

Weitz also added a limit on the number of mural ordinances that the city can process at one time. However, Walker advised against it, saying such a limit would fail scrutiny because of the second standard involving prior restraint. 

“I just think it would be very hard to defend, to say the least,” Walker said. 

He said the commission would need a rational basis to limit the city process to one at a time. He pointed out that High Springs has no such limit for building applications. In fact, Walker noted the Legislature had further restricted cities when processing building applications, allowing complete applications to be approved by default if cities fail to grant approval within a timeline.  

Commissioner Linda Jones agreed with Weitz. She asked about a limit of five or 10 mural applications at a time, but again, the attorney said the restriction would fall to scrutiny.  

“I just find it strange that no matter what the majority of a town feels, a few people can come in and do what they want to do,” Jones said. “That was my whole premise from the beginning of this. We had no control, and at the rate, we’re going, we’re still not going to have any control.” 

Commissioner Gloria James motioned to approve the attorney’s ordinance with three amendments he had made. But the motion died when no one seconded it.  

After some public comment, Weitz said she would second a motion because High Springs would be left without any restrictions otherwise. However, she insisted on keeping her language concerning one application at a time.  

“I maintain that that doesn’t break the law; it doesn’t have any impact on being content-neutral,” Weitz said. “So, I would still like for that to be included.” 

Jones seconded, and the motion passed unanimously. The Plan Board will now review and can decide on the 20- and 30-foot restrictions as well as the addition by Weitz.  

Once returned to the city commission, further changes could come.  

The process started earlier this year after community members spoke against a potential increase in murals presented by The Heart of High Springs nonprofit. That opposition led to a special meeting to discuss a special event permit and kickstarted work on a mural ordinance by Weitz and Jones. 

Here’s a partial list of requirements in the draft mural ordinance:  

  • The artist and building owner shall pay all costs associated with public hearing notifications. 
  • The City Commission must complete its review in 60 days. 
  • Murals are only permitted in non-residential zoning districts. 
  • Any mural application for the historic district is also required to obtain a certificate of appropriateness and abide by additional regulations.  
  • Murals shall not be placed on buildings that are within 50 feet of a residential structure. 
  • The mural must be located on only one side of a building.  
  • The mural may not be placed on the primary facade of the structure. (Unless issued a special allowance.) 
  • Clear, anti-graffiti coating must be applied over the completed artwork. 
  • The mural must not have any unsafe features or conditions that may affect public safety. 
  • The mural must not disrupt traffic nor create any unsafe conditions or distractions to motorists or pedestrians. 
  • Murals shall not be illuminated. 
  • The property owner is responsible for ensuring that a permitted mural is maintained in good condition and fully repaired in the case of vandalism or accidental destruction. 
  • No compensation will be given or received for the right to display the mural. 
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Linda Jones

A well-written article.