From left, Idyllwild Historic Preservation District Local Review Board members Nancy Borchers, Warren Monroe, Chair Terry Shirley and Ron Kammeyer. The board met to discuss the retroactive permit application for the murals at Wild Idy. Shirley is explaining the purpose of the district. Board vote to permit was split, which means it will go to the county planner for a final decision. Photo by Joel Feingold

Planning department to decide

Thursday April 7, members of the Idyllwild Historic Preservation District (IHPD) Local Review Board (LRB) held a special meeting to consider the retroactive application by the proprietors of Wild Idy to allow the murals that adorn the chimney on their 54340 North Circle Drive business and the fence surrounding their next-door AirBnB “Proud Mary” cottage.
IHPD was formed in 2011. The state offers a tax advantage, and freedom from certain regulations, to owners whose buildings within such county-created districts are deemed of historic value, and who opt in to the district, becoming “contributors.” In exchange, they must file applications with the planning department for any alterations visible from public rights of way.
In the 11 years since the formation of IHPD, locals can only remember two other applications; those of Ferro’s restaurant and the Middle Ridge Winery “tasting gallery.” County Historic Preservation Officer Antone Pierucci noted by email those are the only two previous applications of which he is aware.
Ferro’s project involved essentially an entirely new building that followed the footprint and style of a “contributing” building. Middle Ridge’s included a large deck facing the street that includes fencing to comply with the stringent state Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) rules for establishments serving alcohol. Wild Idy is thus the first business to face the county over paint.
The owners asked their landlord, Shane Stewart, for permission before having the murals painted. Since his family had been involved in the formation of IHPD and since other “contributing” businesses had since painted their buildings without permits, they believed they were OK.
The murals, with their bright colors and psychedelia, inspired one anonymous individual to begin a campaign of phone calls to the county. Two details cited in the report about the murals are that the fence is over the “recommended” 42 inches for privacy fences, and the gate is of an “incompatible material” (it is covered with artificial turf.)
On Jan. 27, the LRB met to discuss the murals, and the proprietors of Wild Idy, Amy Hawley and Jayne Spencer, began the process of applying for a retroactive permit for their murals. The application completed (and fees paid), a special meeting was scheduled and Historic Preservation Officer Antone Pierucci collected the relevant material, including his recommendation.
Present at last week’s meeting were LRB Chair Terry Shirley and board members Warren Monroe, Nancy Borchers and Ron Kammeyer. Absent was board member Leslie Mouriquand. Pierucci represented the county, explaining that this board is merely advisory, giving only an opinion to the planning commission.
Shirley called the meeting to order at 12:08 p.m. embers of public who wished to make statements submitted forms and Pierucci set ground rules. Comments should maintain a respectful tone; no personal attacks.
Hawley spoke of “the joy these murals invoke… the smiling faces posing for pictures in front of them… the thousands of people who signed the petition in support…” She went on to question [w]hy would some anonymous individual wait for over a year and a half after these murals went up to decide they were offended by their content and call Code Enforcement daily…” when no complaints had ever come to them personally.
She mentioned the many favorable comments from residents and business people, and the other colorful businesses in the “vibrant” downtown: the hot pink of the Candy Cupboard, the red of the Red Kettle, the purple of Merkaba, and the giant cowboy hat on Wooley’s. She stirred the memories of those who can recall when the building that now houses Wild Idy was pink and sported a family of life-sized plastic panda bears frolicking on the roof.
Hawley outlined the struggles she and her childhood best friend and business partner underwent, the fires and road closures, then COVID, the work to establish a business, and “the murals that finally opened up the foot traffic we so desperately needed.” She also mentioned the application fee, over $700.
She attributed the attempt to remove the murals to a desire on the part of a few to censor artistic expression. She concluded by hoping the board would “honor your message of supporting the small businesses of Idyllwild… and not become the modern day soul-eater of this mountain through censorship based on your personal taste or bias.” (This last a reference to the Cahuilla legend of Tahquitz.)
Members of the public spoke in favor of granting the permit and allowing the murals to remain. At least six people read prepared statements.
The letters and comments echoed one another without repeating. Themes emerged: Idyllwild as a haven for artists, and a quirky, colorful place; the spiritual importance of public art to our identity as a community; the economic importance of the tourism art generates; the joy these murals spark; the odiousness of censorship. The quotes that follow are drawn from these statements.
Ruven Klausner, a full-time resident of four years, artist, and e-commerce pro, wrote that “Idyllwild is an arts community — or so we claim. Which is why this entire mural argument seems antithetical to who we are. Art is subjective — but as a community of artists, it is pivotal that we do not kowtow to a single — but loud — dissenting voice.
“The only art that should be censored or removed is that which is hateful, pornographic, or incites violence — which these murals clearly do not. Forcing these murals to be removed would set a terrible precedent for our community.”
Resident Kelly Visel said she grew up here, learned to love art here, and is now an art historian. She tied art and commerce together. “When I came back [to Idyllwild], Amy was the first one to hire me to do social media and photography. They do that for artists, small artists, big artists, they give you that shot … It would be a shame to take that away.”
One individual called the attempt to remove the murals the “tip of the iceberg of future problems, showing future generations their creations don’t matter.” They noted that the framers of the constitution included promotion of the arts among government’s purposes. Idyllwild is “meant to be a colorful town. People don’t stop and take pictures in front of grey buildings.”
Another member of the public read statements from the mural artist Nick Danger and his mother. “It’s a real blessing when you find a group of people that support you and support creativity and artists of all kinds.” He noted Idyllwild’s “creative energy and unique setting” and its “support for artists like nowhere else I have been.”
His mother, Phyllis McPherson of Cleburne, Texas, asked the LRB to “[p]lease keep the unique and vibrant life of the community by honoring the efforts of the artists and business people.”
Nina Sparks, a San Diego resident, felt compelled to attend the meeting. She said that not all art is for everyone, but thought censoring by municipal code outrageous. She said it was “beautiful that Idyllwild locals are pouring time, energy, money into creating this forum for the arts,” but was “saddened to hear of the removal of the murals being considered. To the person or people championing this effort: Before Idyllwild was this way, it was another way… If you can keep an open heart you may even find something that benefits you in this change.”
Local resident and business owner Cynthia Stevenson’s statement began: “Public art matters. It enhances meaning in our civic spaces… humanizes the built environment. It provides an intersection between past, present and future, and between disciplines and ideas. The motion to destroy the murals… does nothing to support Idyllwild’s unique historical identity. Painting over these original works of art would harm and diminish our community.”
At the conclusion of the public comments, Pierucci read his report in advance of the board’s discussion and vote. “The subject-matter of the murals reflects the unique history of the Idyllwild community, from Cahuilla legends to the important counter-culture period of the 1960s. The psychedelic style of the murals also reflects that counter-culture.
“Although the colors themselves, when considered as mere paint, do not fit the design guidelines of the district, they do meet the standard of being public art and indicative of the ‘artistic flair and community spirit of local residents’ indicated as character-defining features in the Design Guidelines. Moreover, their historic subject-matter is especially pertinent in this discussion.
“Given the fact that the fence is painted in this mural, it is the opinion of the historic preservation officer that the height of the fence does not rise to the level of significance to warrant removal or alteration.
“Based on the information provided by the applicant, it is the opinion of the historic preservation officer that the proposed project adheres to the best practices as laid out in the Design Guidelines and therefore the Review Board should advise the planning director to approve it, with the following corrections, which the property owner needs to make: Replace the fence gate with a more appropriate gate that adheres to the Design Guidelines.”
He then made a motion to discuss the recommendation to allow the permit.
Borchers recounted the beginning of her involvement in the controversy. She recalled being accosted in the bank by someone (not present) and accused of “…two, three, four times a day calling Code Enforcement… accused in public of doing things that I had not done. I was quite upset, still am.” Borchers denies having made any such calls.
She also pointed out an issue with the “Save the Murals” petition (on submitted as an annex to the county application. “My name on the petition supporting the murals is a lie and a forgery.” A perusal of the petition reveals, in addition to Borchers allegedly spurious entry, a few suspicious names, like “Person You Know” residing in Vatican City and “UR Mom” living in USA. The bulk of the names appear genuine and the petition is not at issue in the application.
Borchers mentioned her 15 years of membership in the Art Alliance and volunteer work with the Idyllwild Area Historical Society. Her personal opinion, “I still think it’s garish, but it’s better than the pallet fence there before,” acknowledging that a fence made of non-conventional materials had been removed and replaced with the cedar board fence now carrying the mural.
Getting at the deeper reasons for her objections she said that “the mural praises a drug pusher on whose property 20 miles away two people died.” Here she is perhaps referring to the large mushroom on the fence. Wild Idy has not shied away from noting the psychedelic import of the work. The application’s supporting material includes a page of references, many of which refer to articles covering Timothy Leary and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love during their stay at Fobes Ranch in Garner Valley.
Borcher also said she was “glad at least they are now following regulations by filing for a permit,” but that the gate covered with artificial turf should be replaced.
Monroe opened with the observation that “just as people in the media refuse to read the Florida legislation, they also refuse to read our guidelines.” He did not clarify this statement, and did not respond to a phone message requesting clarification. The ordinance creating the historic preservation districts in Riverside County states that paint color is included in the alterations requiring a permit. But these regulations are routinely ignored. Monroe also noted “something to remember: this district was formed fairly recently. Things like a bright red restaurant or a purple store, (Merkaba) were not taken into account because they were not there.” He also added that he has “been getting unsolicited comments from many people that the thing is not in keeping with the character of Idyllwild.”
About the petition he observed that “approximately 9% of the 2,500 on that list are from Idyllwild. I think it’s wonderful that Boston rang in …” but was unsure if Bostonians should have a say in what Idyllwild should accept. The petition, with more than 2,200 names, contains by this writer’s count, 316 Idyllwild signatures (14%), and others from Pine Cove, Mountain Center, Anza, Hemet/San Jacinto. Most are from California, but residents of all inhabited continents have added their names.
Monroe admitted he was “not sure how many artists would agree with the boring view the board had when creating the IHPD. The Cahuillas lived here, ground their acorns here, it’s not clear they used peyote, I wasn’t there at the time, though some think I was.” His opinion was that Wild Idy should “cut it down to 42 inches. I think that should be the recommendation.”
Kammeyer introduced himself as a landscape architect, designer of projects as diverse as the courtyard in South Coast Plaza and the Navajo Nation Veterans Memorial at Window Rock in Arizona. “Art is subjective.” He said his “mind is open” but that he would have to look at the regulations. “Art is a spirit of its own.”
Shirley clarified IHPD’s purpose and underlined that property owners in the district have a responsibility to be aware of what county guidelines are… “we don’t write them.” He mentioned the 103 eligible buildings within the district, of which 57 are considered “contributing.” He explained that the IHPD allowed waiving American Disability Act requirements, “one way to preserve the character of the village.” Ordinance 528 creates an application process and regulations. The designation has benefits and restrictions. “The purpose of the design guidelines is to help businesses to preserve the village; create a consistent and fair outline. We have a responsibility to help businesses to thrive.”
Pierucci then introduced a motion for vote. Shirley motioned, Kammeyer seconded with Borchers and Monroe voting against. Pierucci announced that the vote was tied and will go to the planning department for final decision since the LRB is advisory.
Monroe then moved that the application be approved, but only by living up to all regulations, the fence being reduced to 42 inches and the gate being replaced. Kammeyer brought up that this would destroy the art work. The motion died without a second.
Shirley listed tentative future agenda items: repaving North Circle; streets signs to better highlight the district; creating an IHPD website. Shirley noted there are funds available from the county for signage, and also grants available from COVID funds to help impacted rural businesses. Information would be presented at the next meeting.
The next meeting was set for noon Thursday, May 5, at the Idyllwild Library.
Monroe underlined the importance of getting better information to realtors about IHPD regulations, offered at the library.