Tuesday’s Planning & Zoning Commission meeting featured a proposed 1,440 square foot mural proposed for the side of a commercial building at 178-188 Sound Beach Ave in the village of Old Greenwich.
The item was a pre-application, meaning the applicant, Matt Conway from RiseUp for Arts, had 20 minutes for his non-profit group’s presentation and questions to the commission. That was followed by unlimited public commenters, each allotted two minutes.
Town Planner Patrick LaRow explained that murals were considered “signs” under the town’s regulations.
“It is a sign and there are applicable standards to be met,” LaRow said.
He explained that lettering on signs had a height limit of 18 inches. Also there is a formula limiting the square footage of a “sign” determined by the frontage of the business.
Further, Mr. LaRow said according to federal law a commercial sign had nothing to do with the first amendment or free speech.
The entire conversation felt eerily similar to the situation last April when Abigail Fox received a violation after she erected a display of artificial flowers on her Old Greenwich storefront. Except in that situation townspeople sided with Ms Fox.
Ms Fox received a violation from the town because the display was considered an “eye-catching device,” which is not allowed. Other business owners received similar violations.
Ultimately, the floral displays all seem to have been taken down.
Mr. Conway said it had been unfortunate that his application materials, which featured a sample design were mistaken for the actual proposed design.
He said he hoped for a broad community conversation that would result in a favorable design.
He said his group, which is fully insured, had invested over $1million on 150 murals across the state in the past year, “all community inclusive.”
As for “signs” versus free speech, Conway pushed back.
“Respectfully there are supreme court cases about first amendment rights and murals….There are some cases we could look at. We’re not coming in to communities trying to push murals down people’s throats,” Conway said.
“We were approached by several businesses, building owners and artists to try to make some murals happen in Greenwich,” he added.
Conway said public art was geared for the “next generation” and not just for “folks who may just be retiring.”
Conway said he hoped to start a community conversation about murals on Sound Beach Ave and mentioned he knew about a previous mural proposal that had been rejected.
In actuality, the pollinator pathway mural on East Putnam Ave was indeed controversial when it was proposed in 2021 when the town lacked a public art policy, but it was ultimately approved.
The difference is the pollinator pathway mural is on public property.
Mr. Conway noted that public comments on file with his application referred to “this is mortifying…awful artwork,” but that design was intended to be a placeholder.
“That’s something we put together just to get on the agenda today,” Conway said.
State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150)
During public comment, State Rep Steve Meskers who lives near to the proposed mural site said the mural idea was exciting, but getting the public to agree on the nature and style of a mural would be complicated.
“When I saw the first piece, I thought California. I thought 1950s, and wasn’t sure what it had to do with my community,” Meskers said, adding that he would have expected artwork to reflect New England, Tod’s Point or the village’s maritime history.
Nevertheless, he was encouraging, suggesting the mural depict a more naturalistic representation.
Importantly he suggested the applicant consider proposing murals for “unadorned spaces” and gave the underpasses on the I95 corridor as examples.
“You have many industrial underpasses which are devoid of any artistic representation or redeeming features.”
P&Z chair Margarita Alban said the commission was pretty far along in developing new signage regulations, but would host a workshop for public input and include the topic of murals.
“It would be completely different if this was not on a commercial building,” Alban added, adding there were court cases ruling a mural is a sign designed to attract the eye and therefore were considered to be advertisements.
Alban said a proposal for an underpass would require an encroachment permit from the state Dept of Transportation.
“If you’re looking for encroachment permits, you’re talking to the right guy,” State Rep Meskers said.
Next in public comment was Andrew Melillo who wrote a well read letter the editor earlier this month. (Nothing in proposed mural conveys Old Greenwich, its colors, rich history or landmarks.
“If it does get off the ground, how does it get maintained and stay in tact?” he asked.
Melillo said if the mural came to fruition, it should reflect the spirit of Old Greenwich, which he noted had a rich history and was the first area of European settlement in town.
“At the same time it’s extremely large and invasive, so if you have something like that in the center of Old Greenwich, you’re not going to have everyone agree. It’s going to be right in your face,” Melillo said.
The owner of the building, Wing Biddle said RiseUp for Arts had approached him on behalf of a building tenant “on how to make a dull taupe wall more attractive.”
He said he thought it was a good idea and had donated some money toward the cause.
“I think they do fantastic work for communities and the artists they represent,” Biddle said. “There are a lot of communities across the country that are as beautiful as Old Greenwich and have beautiful public art.”
Paul Pugliese, a local developer who was also a longtime chair of the Architectural Review Committee, said he agreed a mural at the proposed location was indeed “a sign” per the town’s regulations.
“I’m a supporter of public art and would love to be involved in another location for public art, but I think it’s not setting a good precedent to apply billboards to commercial buildings,” Pugliese said.
President of the Old Greenwich Association Carolyn Petersen said they’d heard a lot from their membership about the proposed mural members feared it would set a precedent and detract from safety as it would be eye-catching.
“We could have another accident,” she said. “We already had a horrible accident at that corner.”
In 2019 a women was in the crosswalk when she struck by a Honda driven by an Old Greenwich and later died of her injuries.
Selectperson Janet Stone McGuigan
Selectperson Janet Stone McGuigan, who co-chairs the town’s sustainability committee, said the town created a public art policy when the pollinator pathway mural was proposed for the wall behind the bus stop on East Putnam Ave across from the high school.
“In the process of getting approvals for that mural, it came to light that the town did not have a public art policy. The RTM asked the selectmen to develop a public art policy. It was posted in December. Let’s assume for the moment there is a suitable location for public art. There is a process, there’s a committee that would be convened.”
Under the new public art policy, public art is defined as “works of art in all artistic disciplines and media that are visually and physically accessible on public property within the Town.”
Alban said while there was an issue with the proposed mural being a sign on commercial property, the Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) did call for public art.
She said if the applicant had case law to the contrary, to please forward those opinions.
It was agreed Ms Stone McGuigan and town administrator Ben Branyan would meet with the applicant.
After Mr. LaRow reminded the applicant that the P&Z commission was the interpreter of the regulations, Mr. Conway offered to forward materials about a situation in Tolland, CT (north of Hartford, near the MA state line) where he said the State Supreme Court had ruled against opponents of a mural in that town.
The Town’s full Public Art Policy can be viewed here.
Excerpts from the Public Art Policy
Public art under this policy is defined as works of art in all artistic disciplines and media that are visually and physically accessible on public property within the Town.
Artwork in Town-owned buildings that uses temporary non-invasive support, such as easels
Artwork donated, loaned, or displayed in personal offices of Town Staff.
Artwork on private property, that can be viewed from public property, such as murals on a private building.
Artwork managed by the Bruce Museum.