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Is City Hall turning into an HOA?

Proposed public art legislation is vague and impractical

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I have a friend who lives in Alpharetta with her father. He owns his home, a well-appointed three-story condo in an upscale, gated community. My friend is a gardener and personal chef, and she decided to put a few container gardens on the sunny front stoop to grow some veggies. Within 24 hours the neighborhood's Homeowners Association made her remove the plants, as they did not align with the organization's vision for the neighborhood. I can tell you from personal experience that the HOA's vision for the neighborhood is well-manicured and calculated. It embraces sameness so strongly that I am always worried I'm knocking on the wrong door when I visit.

The situation seemed silly, but hardly surprising. When you buy a well-appointed condo in an upscale, gated community with an HOA, you cede control of certain rights. Property owners agree to sacrifice some power for peace of mind about property values. This occurs to varying degrees in neighborhoods, both gated and not, throughout the metro area.

Cities tend to be more lax when it comes to regulating curb appeal, for better and for worse. In the best cases, this can result in that increasingly rare feeling of authenticity. In the worst, entire sections of cities may be left to rot until the vacant and overgrown lots outnumber the occupied. Finding middle ground that moves a city forward is difficult, mainly because so many people want a say.

Since street art has become all the rage over the last five or so years, commissioned murals have gone up around the city at a similar pace to new subdivisions going up in Alpharetta. This sudden shift in the look of our public space has created a great deal of positive energy as well as some friction.

In March, Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd introduced an amendment to the city's woefully outdated public art approval process. Currently, the legislative language regarding approval for Certifications for the Installation of Public Art (the process's official title) is based on a decades-old signage ordinance and already treads dangerously close to infringing on private property owners' First Amendment rights. In a particularly shortsighted move, Sheperd has penned legislation that would potentially regulate everything from bird baths to murals.

The proposed ordinance would require private property owners to obtain permits before decorating their yards and exterior walls — essentially any point of visual interest that can be seen from a sidewalk, street, or public park. Securing that permit would require a potentially time-consuming process involving various City Hall departments. City Council would ultimately be in control of regulating expression on private property.

In short, certain city councilmembers seem to fancy themselves part of an HOA.

Ostensibly, the new code is intended to clamp down on organizations such as Living Walls, whose work has sparked debates about the role of public art, and who gets to put what where. Most recently, that debate received international attention when residents of the Pittsburgh neighborhood, which Sheperd now represents, painted over a mural by French artist Roti. It's worth noting that arts groups are already required to follow a process similar to what Sheperd is proposing.

But the amendment's language is so vague and sweeping — it defines public art as an "expression of creative skill or imagination in a visual form" that's "intended to beautify or provide aesthetic influences to public areas on private property or areas on private property" — as to make it both overreaching and completely impractical. First Amendment issues aside, Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs would buckle under the weight of all this paperwork were the law to be fully and equally enforced.

Both Sheperd and Office of Cultural Affairs Director Camille Love have stated that they're not going to watch people's yards. "If someone puts a sculpture in their yard and a neighbor complains, hopefully that will be something they can address over the fence," Love told local website ArtsATL.com. So to whom does this ordinance really apply and how will it be enforced?

Constitutional lawyers could have a field day with Sheperd's proposed legislation. That's easy enough to see. But it raises bigger questions about how Atlanta moves forward in respect to its history. The city is changing, in many places gentrifying rapidly. It's no coincidence that the neighborhoods involved in two of Living Walls' most heated debates were also some of Atlanta's more underserved.

As the representative of some of those communities, Sheperd is being protective. But her proposed amendment is an attempt to legislate away public discourse. Rather than stifle expression from its onset, she and other elected officials should find ways to engage Atlantans about art and development. Homogenization is too often confused for progress.

Additional reporting by Thomas Wheatley.

Sheperd will hold a work session about the legislation on April 24 at 1 p.m. The city's Zoning Review Board will hold a public hearing about the ordinance on May 8 at 6 p.m. City Hall, 55 Trinity Ave. 404-330-6000. www.atlantaga.gov.

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