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Big balloon lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

The constitutional right to have a giant inflatable gorilla in a bathing suit and sunglasses grabbing consumer attention from a Houston business rooftop is the key issue in a trial that began in federal court on Wednesday.

Jim Purtee, owner of Houston Balloons & Promotions, is in court arguing the city of Houston violated his business’ constitutional right to equal protection in the arbitrary enforcement of city sign codes and should pay him damages of $938,241.

Purtee is fighting the city over an ordinance it stopped enforcing when he filed this lawsuit in 2006. But Purtee complains his customers remained antsy and he and his army of 450 inflatable eagles, rabbits, pumpkins, Santas and hot-air-balloon-shaped balloons have suffered for it.

“It cost us a lot of money and it wasn’t incidental,” he said.

Giant balloons will be banned over Houston rooftops beginning in 2010. That ordinance isn’t the subject of this lawsuit, though Purtee said he and others will challenge that next.

This lawsuit is over a 1993 ordinance that said banners, pennants, streamers, strobes, spot lights, whirligigs and inflatable objects were posing traffic and aesthetic problems. That ordinance didn’t ban them, it limited the number of days they could be up and banned business-specific messages placed across them. But the law did not create funding for substantial enforcement of these so-called “attention-getting devices.”

I blogged about the new ordinance banning attention-getting devices, which was passed last November, here, here, and here. The first link notes that the original ordinance, which is the one at issue, limits the use of these devices to 104 days per year, but because the days did not have to be consecutive, and could occur over the 365 day calendar year, it was difficult to enforce. The intent of the new ordinance was to clean up all of that. I think on balance the new ordinance is a good thing, but I can see how the uneven enforcement of the old ordinance could be legally problematic. I suspect the new ordinance is on firmer ground than the one it replaced, but we’ll see. I look forward to hearing what the judge has to say.

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3 Comments

  1. RWB says:

    I’m all for the de-uglification of Houston, but I think the arguments that giant inflatable gorillas (etc.) are a hazard because people might be distracted by them is crazy. Really, this kind of assertion needs to be backed up by actual facts, because it is appears to be just an excuse to get rid of things that some people thing make the views from our freeways ugly. Personally, I think massive parking lots are ugly, and tip-up concrete buildings are ugly, etc. I think giant purple inflatable gorillas, on the other hand, are kind of charming. Indeed, I think the more of them there are, the more charming they are. We, as a city, should embrace our inflatable gorillas. I propose we adopt the giant inflatable gorilla as the official city animal of Houston.

  2. Crap… I had a great comment but I just noticed a 20 foot gorilla outside and lost my train of thought! Get Real!

  3. […] the implications for the new ordinance, which Purtee says will be challenged in court. I’ve said before that on balance I think the new ordinance is a good thing, but I’m sufficiently ambivalent […]