By Leslee Kulba-Asheville Council passed a new graffiti ordinance with a 6-1 vote. Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball provided a concise summary using a new version of PowerPoint that was giving Mayor Esther Manheimer vertigo. Excepting minor suggestions, nobody from the business community spoke against the proposal, even though it calls for new pressure to be applied to victims to undo the damage ASAP.
Held up as the poster child during the discussion was the masterful mural of a trout stream on the side of the Hunter Banks building in Montford. Just last week, somebody decided to doodle on it with white spray paint. Councilman Jan Davis told how owner Frank Smith had spent a lot of money on the remarkable mural that was greatly appreciated by trout fishermen. The art had initially been commissioned to deter graffiti.
The new ordinance will have three phases. The first, to begin immediately, is to slap perpetrators with escalating civil penalties beginning at $200 for the first offence.
The second is to launch an “all-hands-on-deck,” citywide cleanup of existing graffiti. For budgetary reasons, this will begin at the onset of the next fiscal year, and continue for ninety days. From July 1 to September 30, property owners will be expected to remove all graffiti from their holdings in the city. Because this might impose a hardship, victims may request public assistance.
To get assistance, property owners need only call the city. The city will then dispatch an estimator, and the property owner will sign a waiver. The contractor will paint over the graffiti, the property owner will be billed 10 percent of the costs of remediation, and the city will pay the contractor up to $500 per incident. The city would allocate $300,000 for the project. The downside was that the contractors would only stock one shade of gray.
The upside, Ball announced, was that just prior to the meeting, an anonymous donor had offered to cover all 10-percent assessments. The donor had contacted Asheville GreenWorks, and was identified only as a downtown resident and business owner. Mayor Esther Manheimer took the opportunity twice to give a mighty, heartfelt thanks to the wonderful, upstanding citizen.
The third component of the program was the long-term initiative. Following the 90-day moratorium, the city will begin sending “Notices to Remove” to property owners who do not promptly restore defaced structures. Public assistance will still be available, but full reimbursement will be expected. Property owners will have the ability to appeal notices; but if they do not respond after several notices, the city will take action up to and including entering the property to remove the graffiti and slapping the owner with a lien. In a later conversation, Ball indicated this extreme action would only be taken in the most egregious of extenuating circumstances.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell was the only member of council to vote against the ordinance. He did not think that tax revenues should be used to maintain private property. Maintenance is a cost of doing business. Since it is typically businesses that are targeted, Bothwell feared this would serve as another forced wealth transfer from low-income families to big business. He further argued the proposed penalties would not, according to what is understood in the field of behavioral psychology, deter graffiti or incentivize its cleanup.
Bothwell requested consideration of a cap on the number of incidences for which a single business could be reimbursed. City Manager Gary Jackson said that was a good idea, but assured Bothwell the city was going to hold public utilities, like Duke Power and the Metropolitan Sewerage District, responsible for their own cleanup.
Throughout the discussion, speakers struggled to define the line between graffiti and art. The concept of property rights, and who owns the canvas, never came up. Councilwoman Gwen Wisler came closest. “There is a line between vandalism and art.” She elaborated, saying graffiti, is not invited, not commissioned, and not loved by the owner of the canvas.
Several in the community felt the ordinance did not go far enough in reaching out to the graffitists. Local artist Bruce Kennedy, who works with children at the YMCA, led off public comment. He argued the proposal was all stick and no carrot. He described graffitists as needing a voice. Some, he said, deface property as a way of saying, “I’m here.” The city should not close one venue for creativity and self-expression without opening another.
Furthermore, Kennedy said walls covered in graffiti had become local treasures and tourist destinations for other cities. It is now chic to pose for wedding pictures in front of grunge. Some municipalities are now even undertaking preservation measures for what was once considered illegal vandalism.
Kitty Love, who had worked diligently on the city’s behalf from 2004-2005 with the graffiti abatement study group of the Downtown Social Issues Task Force, commended the city for arriving at a lot of the conclusions then recommended. She still thought it would be a good idea for the city to provide a wall for people to legally graffitize.
But entrepreneur Pattiy Torno spoke against that. She argued that a former graffiti wall in the River Arts District was not large enough. She believed it had “spawned a huge part of the problem we’re addressing now.”
Former Vice Mayor Chris Peterson thanked staff for allowing business interests to have a seat at the table, listening and giving them voice. Many downtown business owners have felt excluded to the unfair advantage of neighborhood groups and other special interests.
Regular Chris Chiaromonte said he wasn’t sure the city was going to look a whole lot better with a lot of gray spots all over the place. Ball later clarified that the contractors would be allowed to paint in a specific color provided the property owner had it ready to go when they arrived. As for historic structures, the Historic Resources Commission has promised to “work with” affected building owners.