Aesthetic Zoning: Who Said Rainbows Were Beautiful? Georgetown International Environmental Law Review

Euclid Avenue Banner finalAesthetic Zoning: Who Said Rainbows Were Beautiful?

By Nicholas Nunn, Staff Contributor

The home is the center of our environment. We spend the majority of our day, a solid chunk of our income, and countless man-hours living in and maintaining our homes. Interestingly, however, it has become an accepted fact in our community that, despite no one else helping to trim the hedges, one’s home is not solely under the owner’s control. Municipal planning commissions and homeowners’ associations have expansive aesthetic controls to prevent the eyes of the unwary from being scarred by unsightly homes a shade too dark or a blade of grass too brown. The Supreme Court’s City of Ladue v. Gilleo decision provided some First Amendment protection for what we may display on our home property, but the protections the case provides are limited.

The Washington Post recently reported on an interesting case that may be developing in Baltimore. An artist/homeowner, Julie Baker, displayed an array of multi-colored jars on her front yard, each containing a small candle. Ms. Baker created the display because she loves rainbows, and she hoped their neighbors would enjoy the infusion of color in the neighborhood. However, it was not long before Ms. Baker received an anonymous letter from a neighbor. The letter read:

“Dear Resident of Kenwood Avenue,

Your yard is becoming Relentlessly Gay! Myself and Others in the neighborhood ask that you Tone it Down. This is a Christian area and there are Children. Keep it up and I will be forced to call the Police on You! Your kind need to have respect for GOD.

A concerned homeowner.”

Apparently, a concerned homeowner had interpreted Ms. Baker’s rainbow candles as support for the LGBT movement and was not happy about it. Ms. Baker, incensed and spurred to action by the letter, set up an online crowdfunding campaign to transform her house into a giant rainbow with more decorations, planning to go as far as painting her roof rainbow colors. The online campaign, named “Relentlessly Gay,” has raised $28,000 dollars.

The potential case arising from these facts will be interesting to follow. Though, not because of what a court may have to say on the matter. It is clearly within the state’s police power to pass a zoning code that prevents a homeowner from painting her house in rainbow colors on the sole ground that such a display is an aesthetic affront to the public welfare. Furthermore, such an ordinance would likely not violate Ms. Baker’s First Amendment rights because a prohibition on absurd paint jobs is content neutral – i.e. not focused on suppressing the content of her particular viewpoint. Instead, the real question is, given the current political fervor in favor of the LGBT community, how a political climate usually fine with the aesthetic control of third parties would react to the forced “de-rainbowfication” of a home and whether such an event may cause a political shift away from governmental control over aesthetic decisions in the Baltimore area. Keep your eyes on the horizon and let’s see what pot of gold this rainbow of a story leads us to.