20 April 2023
Where is the line between art and advertising? The question is central to a big dispute in a small American town. A large painting in Conway, New Hampshire, has led to a zoning conflict, a First Amendment legal action and a local vote.
It started with a high school art project to paint a picture on a building in the town. The building houses a store called Leavitt's Country Bakery. The picture shows the sun shining over mountains of chocolate and strawberry donuts, a cinnamon roll and a blueberry muffin. These are the kinds of sweet treats found in bakeries.
Then the town zoning board got involved. It decided that the painting was more advertising than art. Officials said that, as an advertisement, the sign was too big. Its size violated town rules. The board ordered the sign be removed or changed.
Bakery owner Sean Young faced possible fines if he did not follow the order. So, he decided to fight it in court. Young's legal action accuses the town of Conway of violating his right to free speech, guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
"They said it would be art elsewhere," Young told The Associated Press. "It's just not art here.
"The town should not have the right to police art," he said.
The dispute has the town of 10,000 people debating big questions about creativity and freedom. Conway is in the White Moutains, a popular area with visitors. The town is under pressure to increase business development. Some residents worry that compromises with development interests will lead to unwanted changes to their town.
Many, including the zoning board members, liked the students' work. But they said rules must be followed. At about 8.6 square meters, the mural is four times bigger than zoning rules permit for advertising signs.
At town meetings, residents discussed how to define a sign. Then, last week, they voted against changes to the rules. The local newspaper said the wording of the proposed changes was not clear. A judge may have to make the final decision on what remains an open debate in town.
The lawsuit Young filed in January asks that the court prevent the town from enforcing its sign law.
Other businesses have entered into the dispute.
Long before the painting over Leavitt's, Conway had permitted other paintings at a local shopping center. But in December the town found that three of those pictures also violate size limits. The issue went before the zoning board Wednesday.
The lawsuit argues that the town's definition of "sign" is very general and its zoning rules do not include the word "mural."
Board member Luigi Bartolomeo said he thinks the painting at the bakery is art, not advertising.
"I think it's a very badly written piece of code here," said Bartolomeo, who recently retired. But Board Chairperson John Colbath said the board has to work with the rule, which was approved by voters. He argues that the mural would likely be seen as art, and not advertising, if its subject did not represent the products found at Leavitt's.
The town and Young agreed in February to suspend all legal action until a vote on a proposed definition. The proposal failed. The judge now wants to hear from both sides by May 10.
"We're ready to keep going," Young said.
I'm Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
zoning — n. a system of rules used to control where businesses and homes are built in a city or town
resident — n. someone who lives in a particular place
code— n. a set of laws or regulations