July 18, 2018

Victory in the Starry Night mural case!

By Jeremy Talcott Attorney

The Starry Night House saga has finally come to a close. Last night, the Mount Dora City Council voted unanimously to approve a settlement agreement that lets homeowners Nancy Nemhauser and Lubomir Jastrzebski keep the mural on their house and a surrounding wall.

The agreement also dropped all of the previously imposed fines and will grandfather the mural into any future Mount Dora ordinances. The City will also revise its sign code, with help from a special advisory committee that will include Nancy. And today at 12:30 PM EST, the mayor of Mount Dora is leading a press conference with an apology to the family.

The story has gripped media in Central Florida for almost a year. Last July, Nancy asked the city for permission to paint a wall outside their home, and was told there were “no restrictions.” But shortly after the mural was started, the city cited the wall as graffiti, saying the wall needed to match the house. In response, the family had the artist paint the entire home.

At a code enforcement hearing last fall, the city fined the family $100 a day for having an “unpermitted sign.” The city argued that anything that “attracted attention to itself” was a sign under the Mount Dora code. But its hard to imagine what wouldn’t qualify. Pacific Legal Foundation stepped in and agreed to represent Nancy and Lubek for free.

When laws are vague and overbroad, it’s hard for individuals to know what behavior is prohibited. It also encourages government officials to interpret the laws based on personal preferences. That risk is especially prevalent when it involves speech. That’s exactly what happened in Mount Dora; the broad definition of “sign” would have allowed the city to prohibit almost anything—and they used that law to try and destroy a unique mural simply because some officials didn’t care for it.

In February, a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order against the city, stopping the fines and preventing any further enforcement against the property. The judge also noted in his order that we were likely to succeed on the merits. While we are sure we would have eventually won in court, today’s settlement is a total victory for Nancy and Lubek’s rights, and we couldn’t be happier.

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Nemhauser v. City of Mount Dora

What started as artistic expression in Mount Dora, Florida, escalated into a bureaucratic nightmare for Nancy Nemhauser and Lubomir Jastrzebski. When the couple painted a van Gogh-style “The Starry Night” mural on a wall outside their house, the city declared the art “graffiti” because it didn’t match the color of the house. But when Nancy and Lubomir responded by painting a similar mural on the house, the city branded both as illegal “signs,” and fined them hundreds of dollars per day with orders to paint over the mural. On behalf of Nancy and Lubomir, PLF is challenged the city. We argued that banning such artistic murals is an abusive interpretation of the city’s sign ordinance, and violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. In July 2018, Nancy and Lubomir declared victory when the city council voted to settle the lawsuit and allow the mural to remain.

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