Salmon are featured on the Main Street side of a downtown Ketchikan mural by Ricardo Burquez. (KRBD file photo by Maria Dudzak).

Is a mural painted on a downtown Ketchikan fence art or a commercial sign? Borough code isn’t exactly clear on that topic.

The rumor mill was reporting on Monday that the borough was going to remove the mural or fine the business. But, the mural is safe – at least from local government.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Planning Director Richard Harney said his department is working on a much-needed code adjustment to define art versus ads.

In the meantime, he said, the borough is not asking that a mural by Ketchikan artist Ricardo Burquez be painted over.

Harney said there might be a fee for an after-the-fact permit application, though, because the business owners never filled out required paperwork for the mural and other signs they had put up.

He said there’s a whole backstory to how the borough got to this point, starting last summer with a different business that sells salmon.

“First City Salmon put up a sign, a couple of big signs, and they didn’t get sign permits. We received complaints and we had to go investigate,” he said. “They then turned in some sign permit applications. They had to take a couple down. But we looked at a couple of signs they had up, and we said, ‘Well, they’re not really advertising anything that they’re selling.’ So we called them artwork.”

A section of Ricardo Burquez’ mural shows seals and salmon (KRBD file photo by Maria Dudzak).

The original complainant appealed the department’s decision that the two signs were art. The borough planning commission agreed with the complainant, Harney said, and on further appeal the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly upheld the planning commission’s decision.

Harney said the signs were determined by those bodies to be connected, albeit loosely, to what the business sells.

“One was a picture of a boat, a fishing boat, with a mountain in the background,” he said. “The other was a bear catching a salmon in a river, and it said, ‘Let’s go fishing.’”

Harney said the images were both related to fish; the business sells fish; so the commission and the assembly determined they were commercial signs.

Harney said his department used that for direction moving forward. And that’s about the time they received a complaint about the mural, commissioned by Alaska Tourism Investments. That business owns the property, which includes Salmon Capital, a store that sells salmon. The mural depicts salmon, swimming toward that store.

So: Ad or art?

The business had no sign permits on file. Harney said they asked the business to send in an application, which the business eventually did.

Ricardo Burquez adds details to his mural on August 30th. (KRBD file photo by Maria Dudzak).

“We then sent them a letter back saying, ‘OK. Thank you for the applications. We’re going to make a determination on this.’” He said. “But, at this point in time, based on the direction that we have, we see our sign permit code as being insufficient. We need to have a discussion about our sign code to fix it.”

Harney said the sign code has needed an update for at least the past 10 years. Confusion about the mural will, he hopes, make that update a reality.

Because right now: “We don’t have any provisions for dealing with artwork,” he said. “So, what we’re trying to do is formulate something that we can 1) permit artwork and 2) allow equity in signage throughout the community.”

Harney said a code update has to go through a process. It first has to be written, and then goes to the code and planning committee – probably on Jan. 22. From there, it would head to the planning commission and then finally to the borough assembly.

If everything goes smoothly, Harney said it will take about four months.

In the meantime, though, what about the downtown mural? According to the borough, the complaint has been dismissed.

“We are not going to be making them take down the mural,” Harney said. “We’re not asking for citations. The only thing that we requested is that they fill out sign permit applications, and they did that. So they are following the rules. They are doing what is necessary for them to keep doing what they’re doing.”

So, as far as the borough is concerned, right now the mural can stay.