La Jolla PDO Committee continues mural/sign discussion; weighs seeking external guidance

A mural, which has since been rotated out, depicts a McLaren car at the McLaren dealership in La Jolla in 2018.

Finding itself between “a rock and a hard place,” the La Jolla Planned District Ordinance Committee continued Aug. 10 to try to hash out what differentiates a mural from an advertising sign.

Last month, the board decided to reach out to its parent organizations for input and report back. PDO is composed of 11 members: three appointed by the La Jolla Community Planning Association, three by the La Jolla Town Council, three by the La Jolla Village Merchants Association and two by the Bird Rock Community Council.

The La Jolla Planned District Ordinance Committee, as part of its ongoing task of reviewing public displays for whether they are murals or marketing, formed a subcommittee to come up with guidelines for future installations.

The intent is to create an approval process or set of guidelines for the installation of murals, similar to what is already in place for signs.

A “sign” would need a city permit and therefore go before the board for approval. But there is not an approval process for a “mural,” and some have taken to painting murals on exterior walls with promotional material in them, such as the name of a business.

San Diego’s municipal code provides guidelines for what qualifies as a sign. It states that graphics painted on walls — which many in La Jolla are — count as murals. But they cannot “contain copy, advertising symbols, lettering, trademarks or other references to the premises, products or services that are provided on the premises where the graphics are located,” which some do.

For guidance, La Jolla Village Merchants Association representative Brett Murphy suggested reaching out to the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library about how murals are chosen for its Murals of La Jolla program.

For Murals of La Jolla, artists are invited to participate by a jury of representatives of art organizations across La Jolla, who work with the artists to decide on an image.

Town Council representative Jerri Hunt suggested reaching out to other “art communities” to see how they regulate their murals and if there are any criteria applied to art before it goes up.

As an additional guideline, a member of the public recommended that murals not contain any wording or hashtags.

La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane said some murals in the past did not contain wording but were seen as advertising, and other murals that contain words are not.

As an example, she spoke of a mural depicting a McLaren car at the La Jolla dealership where that brand is sold. LJCPA received a complaint about the mural in 2018.

“From the CPA perspective, the question is, what is a sign?” she said. “The question is, what happens when people paint a mural that has advertising as part of it? Part of where you get blurred lines is the association with the image with the business, such as the McLaren mural. The proximity to the placement of sale was too close.

“There were others in which that was the case. They were lovely images, but they were promoting what was going on in the building. Then the question becomes, if it is a sign, does it follow the PDO? So where is that line? When is it a sign?”

A complaint also has come forward about the “Unity in Diversity” mural against a wall of CJ Charles Jewelers at 1135 Prospect St. It does not advertise any products or services offered in the building but includes the words “Unity in Diversity” and the letters “BLM” in the center, a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Currently, if a mural painted on a wall contains what could be viewed as advertising or otherwise violates local sign regulations, the PDO board files a complaint with city Neighborhood Code Compliance.

“Our goal is to help applicants through the process and support business and growth in our community, and to become a policing agency is not where we want to be,” said PDO Chairwoman Deborah Marengo. “We’re between a rock and a hard place. But the recommendations we have already made put us in a good position [to start].”

In 2019, PDO members determined they would regulate a mural if it involves issues with safety, lighting, views and other matters under their purview. The board also decided at the time, and affirmed at its July 13 meeting, to review upcoming murals and “grandfather in” those already in place.

PDO will continue to discuss murals at its monthly meetings. The next one is scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 14, via Zoom. Learn more at