The city's Historic Preservation Commission and local artists are going to Circuit Court over the definition of a word.
The Historic Preservation Commission doesn't regulate paint itself, but chooses to regulate images drawn onto historic properties — such as the mural on the restaurant Tsunami. Officials said murals are "alterations," giving the commission this authority.
But the owner of the building contends the city shouldn't regulate the mural because history and art coexist in other areas.
The case could change how the commission regulates the city's historic properties and might have an effect statewide.
"We've had differences of opinion in the past whether the Historic Preservation Commission should be in the business of picking and choosing art," said Chuck Walsh, a board member of the Arts and Entertainment District. "They are requiring the people who want to do art to seek approval."
Lisa Craig, city chief of historic preservation, said the commission regulates murals because they can redefine the traits of a historic property.
In general, Craig said, the city code — taking into account state and national guidelines and law — is used to develop rules and recommendations that govern what's allowed when owners of historic properties want to make changes or do repairs.
Simple changes, such as replacing wood with wood, are typically approved administratively by Craig. More substantial work, such as additions, goes before the commission in public hearings.
Murals can change the character of the building, Craig said. The commission often approves them after hearing from the owners, she said.
"Paint can be an enhancement," Craig said. "Each building is treated differently, based on its history."
Walsh said the commission's enforcement has been uneven, and that it doen't take an image to change a building's character.
"If I painted the front of Tsunami Pepto-Bismol pink, one would think there was to be an impact on the historical significance of the building," he said.
This debate is part of a broader discussion on how the city code handles historic properties.
The city creates guidelines using its code and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation. The vaguer guidelines give the commission latitude when approving or denying.
But it has been almost 20 years since the city Historic District ordinance was updated, and some provision of the law, officials said, have fallen behind state and national changes.
The commission is now working on a revision of the law, but Craig declined to release any specific changes, as work on them has not been finished.
The changes to the city code drafted by the commission will go before the City Council, which will hold hearings before making a decision. The most recent draft of the code changes is set to be discussed at the commission's Nov. 10 meeting, although the date could be pushed back.
Commission Chairwoman Sharon Kennedy held two closed meetings on Oct. 25 and Tuesday with selected members of the community who expressed concerns when the first draft of the ordinance was unveiled in August.
Some of the complaints focused on the way the revisions would expand Craig's authority. She would be given the ability to cite homeowners.
In an email, Kennedy said the meetings were intended to hear from community members with concerns about the first draft. No votes were taken. She was the only commissioner at the meeting, and the draft will go out to the public once it is completed.
Craig already has power to give administrative approval and issue citations when changes are made to historic homes without city approval. She said the expansion of powers under the revision would allow the city to have a record of when a building has been left to be demolished by neglect.
The Department of Neighborhood and Environmental Programs already cites such homes due to public safety concerns. Craig told The Capital no homes would be cited twice.
"We want to work with homeowners and preserve these properties," Craig said. "Most often they just need a certificate of approval and that's it."
Not everyone agreed with Kennedy's decision to hold the meetings in private. Alderman Ian Pfeiffer said government works better when it can be done in the open.
"We always do better when we end up with more public input," Pfeiffer said.
Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, said he didn't believe any public business was conducted behind closed doors.