CANTON —   The city has determined it cannot force a landlord to remove the phallic murals on his 12th Street NW building.

"As a city, we have difficulty controlling content," said Jason Reese, the city's assistant law director. "That's where we get into First Amendment rights."

The phallic murals — a winged creature and head of Medusa — first appeared in November at 1000 12th St. NW. The building's owner, Roland Burns, said he painted the pictures to comply with the city's rules, as advised by the assistant law director. Reese said he did not advise Burns to paint those images.

How it began

In January 2017, the Building Department ordered Burns to paint and scrape the rear of his building within 45 days. Photos show paint peeling off wood siding and a cement wall.

During what Burns described as an informal meeting between him, his attorney and city officials involved in building and code cases, the 12th Street NW property was discussed. Burns, who provided a recording of the conversation to The Canton Repository, told officials he re-sided that section and was surprised by a $100 fine for failure to comply.

They continued to debate the need to scrape and paint or seal the cement block walls for about 20 minutes. Burns said he wanted to peel back the layers of paint, left from a previous owner, over time. City officials suggested paint stripping products and wanted the situation resolved by fall because of community complaints.

They disagreed about whether the building met the code requirements, which requires exteriors to be maintained, free of loose material and weather proofed. Burns recalled a time he painted crude sayings and figures at his house about five years ago, and the conversation became contentious.

"The neighbors were even madder when I was done than when I started," Burns said on the recording.

To which, Reese apparently responds: "If that's what you want to do, then go do that. I don't care." He reiterates that it needs to be repainted or stripped and asks why Burns can't "just make it look nice."

As a building that houses Burns' office and a health clinic, which is not charged rent, Burns said it doesn't make sense financially. His paintings met the city's standards for exterior wall conditions.

How long they'll stay

The murals are listed as "defiant penis murals" on www.RoadsideAmerica.com, an online catalog of "offbeat tourist attractions."

Burns said area business owners told him there's been an increase in visitors since he painted them. He's willing to remove the murals — if the Building Department plays "fair."

"The code system is just broken," Burns said. "It's very easy to fix, but they swear that they're right on everything that they say, even if I can bring in documentation showing they're wrong."

Although the city has no means to remove the murals, a neighborhood association might file a lawsuit for property devaluation, Reese said.

Rod Pisani, president of the Summit United Neighbors (SUN), said Burns has been a longtime problem as an owner of properties that are "falling apart." Pisani plans to meet with city officials to learn more about the association's options, such as a lawsuit, and share that information at next month's SUN meeting.

"We're talking about it. We are interested," He said. "We're just tired of these guys coming in and destroying our community."

Burns has a pending court case on an unrelated charge of nonconforming uses of structures. His four-unit building on 14th Street NW lost its multi-family status, which Burns said occurred before he purchased it.

Yet, multiple families live there, according to the city.

There also are nine violations Burns said he will appeal Feb. 13 at the Board of Building Appeals because they are inconsistent with the city's code or other laws.

The Canton Repository's request made Monday for the recent violations was not fulfilled by press time.

Kelly Byer is a staff writer for The Canton Repository.