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Debate over tree mural gets Funke 

The ARTery unveiled a new weapon in the fight to keep its controversial mural in downtown Atascadero: defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu, who’s volunteering his services.

The Atascadero Design Review Committee (DRC) assembled July 24 to consider possible changes that would trim foliage and remove some wording from the painted tree on the side of the building, reducing the mural from 620 square feet to 550. But when Funke-Bilu took to the podium, all that went out the window.

“They have a right to put art on their property,” Funke-Bilu said. “This has nothing to do with signs. The committee has no jurisdiction here.”

Funke-Bilu said he reviewed California case law and found that judges have always sided with property owners and free expression. He said the ARTery should be allowed to keep the mural as it is.

“Hopefully we can avoid litigation,” Funke-Bilu said.

Because the DRC had already reviewed and denied an administrative use permit for the project as it is, the committee members felt they had no authority to reverse the decision. It should have been appealed to the Planning Commission, and Funke-Bilu’s legal claims would have to be examined by the city attorney, they said.

“I’m very disappointed with the actions that took place here today,” Bob Kelley, city mayor and DRC member, said. “I was prepared to approve the changes.”

The DRC prepared to terminate the meeting and suspend public comment, but audible protests from the crowd caused members to reconsider and allow comment. A handful of people expressed frustration with the ARTery for flouting the process, but many more spoke in support of the mural and criticized the city for its vague and confusing laws concerning wall art. One person was booted out for ranting over the time limit.

When it was all over, Kelley said he was willing to get past the issue and let the mural stay, but other committee members opted to consult the city attorney before making a move.

“Most rules are in place to be broken,” Kelley said. “I don’t mind seeing this as a learning opportunity as we go forward.”

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