Country Bakery

Students created a bakery mural. The municipality wishes to have it removed.

The façade of a roadside bakery in a small New Hampshire tourist town is embellished with a depiction of the sun rising over a row of doughnuts, muffins, and other delicacies.

Whether the artwork is a mural or a sign will influence if it is removed by the high school students who produced it.

The Conway, New Hampshire, community has been gripped for months by a disagreement over whether the art installation is designated a sign under the municipal ordinance, as previously reported by the Conway Daily News. The town says yes because the picture depicts baked products and the image surpasses the permitted sign size limit. The owner of Leavitt’s Country Bakery says no — and claims the town legislation violates the First Amendment in a federal lawsuit.

“We didn’t want to tear down the mural,” the owner, Sean Young, explained. “At first, I was really sad for the kids, and I didn’t think they were correct in telling us it wasn’t art.”

According to Young, the issue later became a matter of principle. He claims that the ordinance is unlawful in a lawsuit filed last month. According to the lawsuit, because the legislation defines a sign based on the visuals it displays, it discriminates based on the substance of the speech and the identity of the speaker.

Conway authorities say they are respecting the will of the residents who voted to pass the sign ban, and they point out that the rule has not been enforced against Leavitt’s through fines or other means.

The story began last spring when Young’s buddy learned that another friend, local art instructor Olivia Benish, wanted to get her students involved in the community and observed the bakery was practically a blank canvas. Young bought the decades-old Leavitt’s, previously known as “Conway’s unofficial town hall,” in 2021 and swiftly elevated it to the top of a list of the best doughnuts in New Hampshire.

When he met the five Kennett High School students, he granted them complete freedom to design any image they wanted. According to Benish, the team discussed the importance of not painting the Leavitt name or logo on the mural. They didn’t want anyone mistaking it for a sign.

“I thought we were aware,” responded the teacher. “Clearly, I wasn’t fully aware because I never envisaged it becoming what it has.”

One day, Benish brought Leavitt’s doughnuts to a school, and the class began thinking. They investigated concepts based on the personality of their northeast New Hampshire locale, which attracts skiers in the winter and hikers and water tubers in the summer.

The pupils reasoned that the mural could depict people floating down the Saco River on doughnuts. Instead, it could show the sun as a doughnut over the White Mountains, which cover nearly one-quarter of the state.

After settling on a design, the group spent roughly five weeks painting it on exterior-grade panels and priming them. The first time Young saw the image was when a community member hung the panels on Leavitt’s. He stated that he did not want to tell the children what they should design.

“There were a lot of folks in town who wanted to be on the committee that decided what the kids painted,” Young, 51, said. “I told them it was up to them.”

A municipal code enforcement officer visited Leavitt’s about a week after the picture was shown. He felt moved to act after reading an article on the painting in the local newspaper. He explained that the painting was actually a placard that was nearly four times the size allowed.

Young could not afford the $275 per day fee that may be imposed for breaking the law. He was still getting his bearings in the firm, he explained and hadn’t even given himself a wage. He also didn’t want to be penalized with a misdemeanor for breaking the law.

As a result, Young requested Conway’s zoning board members in August to overturn the enforcement officer’s determination that the painting was a sign. They turned down his plea.

Young then filed a variance to keep the picture on display in the business. The board of directors said no. When Young requested a rehearing, the panel denied him once more.

Getting Young to remove the painting, according to town officials, is a matter of fairness to the residents who supported the zoning requirements. According to Zoning Board Chair John Colbath, an image on a business is considered a sign if it reflects a product that the firm sells.

“It’s a zoning rule that was established by the legislative body, which are the town voters who are here,” he explained at the August meeting. “And if they don’t like it, there is a procedure for changing it.”

Another zoning board member, Luigi Bartolomeo, said the legislation is excruciatingly ambiguous. Yet, he voted to support the code enforcement officer’s determination that the artwork constitutes a sign.

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Several people in the community supported Leavitt throughout the process. Every day, more than a dozen consumers have expressed their support, according to Young. A local tattoo business approached Benish about raising funds for the high school art program. People crowded the room for the zoning board meeting in August.

“I just feel like the grey area of the sign definition — I don’t feel like something linked to kids making artwork is the time to try to define it,” Shawn Foss, a long-time Leavitt’s client, told the board.

Benish expressed her dissatisfaction with the controversy. She feels sorry for the kids who put their hearts and souls into the painting, and she worries if she will be able to lead additional public art initiatives in the future.

One of Benish’s students who worked on the painting believes that the situation has been prolonged far too long. Ben Rieser, 18, said he enjoyed having his work displayed around town at first. But, he and the other students unintentionally constructed a sign, and Leavitt’s should have removed it as soon as the error was discovered, Rieser said in an English class assignment provided with The Washington Post.

“I don’t want to see it up there any longer,” he remarked, “since it’s become something political rather than aesthetic.”

According to the lawsuit, the municipality threatened Young with enforcement of the ordinance in early January. According to town attorney Jason Dennis, the government asked Leavitt’s to remove the painting temporarily but never received a response.

Young launched a legal challenge with the support of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm. A judge ordered the town not to enforce the ordinance until further notice earlier this month.

Both parties to the issue perceive a viable solution: A proposed ordinance to be voted on in April would classify a graphic as a sign only if its primary aim is to advertise. Young and the town agree that if the law is implemented, the pupils’ painting will most likely no longer be regarded as a sign.

“My legal judgment is that if this passes, Leavitt’s sign might stay,” Dennis said last month during a planning board meeting.

Young stated that if voters reject the measure, the case will be continued. He sees the conflict as a matter of free expression, and he does not want to disappoint those who support him.

“We have to follow through now that everyone is watching,” Young remarked.