Steve Paul

A people’s small crusade may succeed in City Hall

Updated: 2014-02-09T01:29:26Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

It was a beautiful bureaucratic moment.

A well-meaning citizen, an artist no less, went before a city board to answer for a civic infraction.

He had a hard-luck story. He didn’t pay attention to the law. He wasn’t sure what to do. He was trying to do the right thing, but you know, sometimes the right thing takes time.

The board could’ve come down hard. It could’ve toed the line. There was talk that way — we don’t have a choice, the artist was told. But then one of those volunteer board members had a bright idea and smiled while setting in motion a second chance.

Welcome to the world and the difficulty of Israel Garcia.

Garcia went before Kansas City’s Board of Zoning Adjustment two weeks ago to appeal a city decision to enforce a recently enacted billboard ordinance.

The ordinance caught Garcia by surprise.

Six years ago, Garcia purchased a billboard on a fringe patch of land in the West Side neighborhood where he grew up. From time to time he installed art works on the billboard, a self-funded effort to do something different in a quasi-public space — the billboard is a highly visible structure, sitting among trees on a bluff at the western terminus of 17th Street.

But then the long arm of the law came down on him in a rather odd way. Last year, someone went to the laborious effort of stealing his most recent art work. The billboard sat empty, and the city went after Garcia because the recently enacted ordinance forbids billboards to be blank for more than 90 days.

The city threatened removal of the billboard.

Garcia, who curates a Crossroads art gallery, says he tried to get the city to explain his options, but he never got to anyone who would listen to him or give him adequate advice. Eventually he was guided to appeal the city’s action to the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

As his hearing played out, it became clear that the city’s ordinance defined billboards only as commercial structures with advertising messages and made no allowance for artists following a different vision. And it also became clear that Garcia understood he was in violation, though he pleaded that a new piece of art takes time to conceive and produce. “I wanted to do it right,” he told the board.

Garcia remained in a bind.

Community members from the West Side and artist organizations spoke up on his behalf. He was a good steward of the property, one said. Exceptions should be made, said another.

Board chair Theresa Otto signaled her dilemma when she said, “What I personally would like to do is not what I can do as board chair.”

A few minutes later, board member Mark Ebbits looked up and smiled — and offered the only solution that felt right at the time. He moved to continue the case until June.

The ruling, of course, gives Garcia time to complete a new work and to navigate the city’s zoning bureaucracy.

Former Jackson County Executive Katheryn Shields, who was attending the zoning board meeting on another case, offered to help Garcia investigate changes in the billboard ordinance.

And on Friday a spokeswoman for City Council member Jan Marcason confirmed that a meeting will be held next week to discuss an appropriate amendment to the ordinance that would make room for artists.

To most citizens, like Garcia, up close and personal, the ways of local governments can seem mysterious, foreboding and impenetrable. It’s heartening on those occasions when bureaucrats can find a way to let the people win.

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762 or send email to paul@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/sbpaul.

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