U-B file photo:
Customers step out of Inland Octopus beneath the store's mutil-story artwork and on to Main Street in Walla Walla Thursday morning. After a legal battle toy store owner Bob Catsiff has lost his battle, challenging the constitutionality of the City of Walla Walla's sign code.
UPDATE: Walla Walla City Attorney Tim Donaldson said after the Union-Bulletin’s newspaper deadline today that the Inland Octopus mural can remain until owner Bob Catsiff exhausts his court appeals.
Catsiff’s attorney, Michael de Grasse, said this morning Catsiff intends to appeal today’s Superior Court decision.
Meanwhile, the $100-a-day fines that began accruing Oct. 14 will continue and will be collected from Catsiff if the city ultimately wins all court decisions, Donaldson said.
The appeals process could take years, he added. Catsiff currently owes about $19,000.
WALLA WALLA -- The purple octopus has to come down.
That's the crux of a ruling by Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht, who has rejected claims by downtown toy store owner Bob Catsiff in his lawsuit against the city of Walla Walla.
Catsiff maintained in his complaint that his constitutional right of free speech is being stifled by the city's requirement he remove his giant mural, but Schacht disagrees.
Catsiff's attorney Michael de Grasse said this morning Catsiff plans to appeal Schacht's decision.
"We think that Bob Catsiff's position is sound on law and with all respect to Judge Schacht we're going to seek review," de Grasse said.
The city soon will present a formal final judgment for Schacht to sign. After that, Catsiff has 30 days to file a formal court appeal.
City Attorney Tim Donaldson couldn't be reached this morning for information on the city's next move in enforcing removal of the mural.
Painted on the storefront at 7 E. Main St. last Labor Day weekend, Catsiff's mural -- which he conceded is a wall sign by the city's definition -- exceeds the city of Walla Walla's size and height requirements for signs downtown and city officials ordered it removed.
In Schacht's decision released by the city this morning, Schacht wrote that the city's ordinance is justified, is "very clear and specific" and that Catsiff has failed to show unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt.
"To the extent that size and height restrictions are a restriction on freedom of speech or expression, the City has met its burden of justifying the restriction."
Schacht added: "The general concept that a municipal government may regulate the physical characteristics of signs (such as size, area and height) through restrictions or limitations is well accepted and established. The Court finds these ordinances do not bar or even restrict expression."
Schacht also pointed out the sign is visible to motorists and pedestrians, and valid traffic safety concerns are addressed in the sign code.
In a court hearing last week, City Attorney Tim Donaldson argued the code furthers a substantial governmental interest -- economic development of downtown, which was dying in the 1980s. What resulted was a carefully envisioned and implemented downtown redevelopment plan that capitalized on the district's historic character, Donaldson said.
In his opinion, Schacht wrote that size and height requirements in the city code "are direct and specific and support the City's interest in downtown visual quality."
Schacht also rejected Catsiff's claims that the code is overbroad and imposes prior restraint.
Schacht's ruling is expected to be formally filed in court this afternoon.
The decision affirms one by a city hearing examiner in November, assessing $100-a-day fines against Catsiff since Oct. 14 for violating the sign code. Donaldson has said the fines -- now amounting to about $19,000 -- will be collected were the city to win the case.
Catsiff didn't obtain a permit to have the mural painted or a permit to occupy the city right of way in the process. He also didn't obtain a permit for an octopus and rainbow painting on the back of the building earlier in the year. He has been assessed a total of $300 in one-time fines for those violations.
The ruling by Schacht culminates a seven-month standoff between Catsiff and the city that also sparked a community discussion over property rights.
A number of citizens took to social network Facebook this morning to post their disappointment about the removal of the mural. Supporters have said the painting by Walla Walla artist Aaron Randall is an extension of the whimsy found inside the community's only independent toy store. Some believe the city has been too heavy-handed in its enforcement of the code and believe this is an example of unfriendly business practices on the part of the government.
But the very sign regulations that disallow the mural have also helped bolster the economic success downtown, officials have said.
Despite increased public discourse surrounding property rights, no changes have been made to the regulations or design standards for downtown merchants, said Elio Agostini, executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.
Agostini said the foundation had advised against the mural months before it was painted last September. Not only did the foundation's Design Committee take issue with the proposal, but Agostini said the few city representatives he'd spoken with about it had also voiced their disapproval, which was communicated with Catsiff.
Agostini said he understands the emotional connection that people have forged with the mural. In the months since the painting went up citizens have organized demonstrations of support for it with gatherings and fundraisers downtown. But the attachment to the painting is separate from the challenge at hand, Agostini said.
"The emotional part wasn't the issue," he said. "This was a legal decision."
He said the toy store is an asset to the downtown landscape and hopes its future is bright.
"We value Bob," Agostini said. "He has a tremendous toy store, and we hope to keep him here and that he accepts this decision.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321. Terry McConn can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8319.