City of Walla Walla fines Inland Octopus over mural

The owner will have to pay $100 for every day the mural remains.

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WALLA WALLA - Inland Octopus toy store owner Bob Catsiff will be fined $100 every day that his infamous octopus mural remains on the front of his Main Street toy store, according to a civil violation notice served to the downtown business owner Thursday.

Catsiff must also pay another $300 in fines for failing to obtain permits related to painting the giant octopus mural on the front of the building at 7 E. Main St. and another on the back exterior.

The seven-page notice, served Thursday afternoon, was signed by Support Services Director Tim McCarty, who is serving as acting city manager in the absence of City Manager Nabiel Shawa. Shawa is on vacation. The notice was also addressed to building owner Mike May, who shares responsibility for the violations, according to city code.

The notice is the latest twist in the ongoing controversy over the octopus mural, painted on the downtown storefront over Labor Day weekend without permits or city approval. City officials believe the painting fits under the definition of a "sign" and violates size restrictions defined in the city code.

Catsiff maintains the mural is not a sign, but a work of art. Even so, he believes the city sign code is so vague that characterizing the colorful purple octopus peeking over the castle walls with a rainbow overhead is a case of "selective code enforcement."

Outspoken citizens have taken to social-networking sites to show their support for the mural. On a Facebook page dedicated to saving the "endangered purple octopus" and created earlier this week, "fans" this morning expressed their outrage and talked about staging a protest in front of the store. Discussion about a possible fundraiser to help pay for the fines was also taking place.

If Catsiff keeps the mural the matter will be heard by the Walla Walla City Hearing Examiner on Nov. 18. He figures the fine will have grown to around $3,000 by then.

Though steadfast in his belief that the painting is legal, Catsiff had not yet decided his course of action this morning.

"The city keeps talking about not wanting to be the Taste Police," he said Thursday evening. "But that's exactly what they're being."

He believes the show of support - with about 70 people packing a City Council work session to discuss the matter Monday and a fan base of more than 1,300 people for the Facebook page started this week - should serve as a demonstration of the will of the public to the city.

"How much closer to a unanimous decision does it need to be as far as public opinion goes?" he said.

But Donaldson has said this is not a matter of taste. The sign code defines a sign as "any device, structure, fixture (including the supportive structure) or any other surface that identifies, advertises and/or promotes an activity, product service, place, business, political or social point of view or any other thing." The municipal code defines a "wall sign" as "any sign attached to or painted directly on the wall, or erected against and parallel to the wall of the building, not extending more than twelve inches from the wall."

Allowing the octopus mural would set a precedent for other property and business owners to violate city codes, Donaldson has said.

Catsiff said Thursday that artist Aaron Randall painted the mural free of charge for the toy store. Catsiff estimates the replacement value of the mural at $3,000 to $5,000.

Though the controversy over the mural has clearly raised the profile of the business, he's not sure whether it's helped contribute to the store's bottom line. Business is up, but it could be attributed to last April's move to its current location, inflation or the improving economy. Most of the people who stop by to see the mural merely voice their support as opposed to buying items, he said.

Catsiff has said he may seek an injunction on the violation notice until a determination can be made. He planned to explore his legal options this morning.

According to the notice, the hearing will be canceled if corrective action is taken and the monetary penalty is paid in full at least 48 hours before the scheduled hearing.

In order to take corrective action, a right-of-way permit would be required.

According to the notice the city "may abate the sign" in accordance with the municipal code and by the order of the Hearing Examiner if corrective action is not taken before the date and time of the hearing.

The costs and expenses of abatement incurred by the city, as well as the monetary penalty, may be assessed against both the property owner and occupant. Costs of abatement may also be levied against the property as a special assessment.

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