Orange County enforces flag limits in rural neighborhoods
This story was updated at 1:35 p.m. Sept. 10, 2019, and at 10:14 a.m. Sept. 11, 2019.
The owner of a huge Confederate battle flag on U.S. 70 has appealed a decision that he is in violation of Orange County’s limits on the size of flags.
Robert “Doug” Hall Jr., the owner of the 400-square-foot flag, was one of two homeowners whose flags violated rules that took effect in May. The other homeowner had four flags — one more than the three allowed on residential land — and will have to choose which ones to keep flying.
Violators can appeal the county’s decision to the Board of Adjustment. If the board upholds the zoning officer’s decision, they then can appeal to Orange County Superior Court.
Property owners who violate the rules can be fined $500 a day. The county also can revoke any existing permits and deny future permits, and take them to court to get the flags removed.
The Orange County commissioners voted in May 2018 to limit the size and number of flags that can be flown after Hall and Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC) raised the Confederate flag on Hall’s property.
In the appeal filed Monday, Hall argues the new rules violate his constitutional right to freedom of speech, noting that many public comments at county board meetings explicitly or implicitly referred to his Confederate flag as the reason rules were needed.
Enforcement of the rules is causing him over $5,000 in damages, he said, including the cost of the permitting fee and the cost to erect the flagpole and buy the flag.
Hall is asking the county to dismiss any violations and fines and allow him to keep flying the larger flag, since he got a county permit and followed local rules to erect the flagpole and flag before the rules were changed.
Hall will have to install a shorter flagpole only if the current one falls down or he voluntarily removes it.
“To install a much lower flagpole in such a large base or erect size-conforming flags on the previously permitted flagpole would be akin to putting a barbie doll head on the body of a life-size doll,” the appeal states.
The Board of Adjustment could hear the appeal at 7 p.m. Nov. 11 in the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough.
Other flags, flagpoles
A total of eight residents, two churches and two Orange County schools received certified letters about flag or flagpole violations on Aug. 9. A follow-up survey of the eight residents found six of them were not violating the county’s ordinance.
The rules allow property owners in residentially zoned areas to fly up to three flags on a single, 24-foot-tall flagpole. Flags can be a total of 24 square feet. Flagpoles erected before the new rules took effect can remain until they are voluntarily replaced or fall down.
The rules do not apply to property in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Carrboro or Mebane.
Courts previously have ruled that governments can limit flag size, but what is printed on a flag — the content — is constitutionally protected free speech that cannot be regulated.
County officials have said, despite a Confederate flag prompting them, the rules do not target the content of any flags. The commissioners said last year they are concerned about public safety and protecting the view of local skylines.
ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson has threatened to sue the county. His group is targeting Orange County for what it sees as censorship of Southern history, including the banning of Confederate symbols from the Orange County Schools and the removal of the words “Confederate Memorial” from the Orange County Historical Museum building in Hillsborough, he has said.
Hall’s flag is equal to nearly 17 regulation-size flags and is mounted on a 60-foot-tall flagpole.
Efforts to reach Hall and Williamson were unsuccessful.
Other flag violations
County Planning Director Craig Benedict said three staff members spent four weeks — roughly 60 to 75 hours — driving around the county taking photos of flags and flagpoles that violated the new rules. They were only recently able to go onto some properties to verify whether those flags met the rules, he said, and have since sent letters to the six homeowners who actually are in compliance.
Five of those homeowners had a 4-foot by 6-foot U.S. flag flying from a porch-mounted pole; the sixth flew a 3-foot by 5-foot Marine Corps flag from his porch. Four of them had neighbors with the same flag, all visible from the street, but they did not get letters.
Jason Crowe has the same porch-mounted U.S. flag as several of his neighbors. All can be seen from the street, although the flag flying from Crowe’s porch on Cavell Court is partially hidden behind three large trees.
But only Crowe got a letter. When he called the Planning Office about it, they sent two staff members out to measure his flag. He was told that he would get another letter saying his flag met the rules.
“The thing about it that’s frustrating is how much did it cost to do that?” Crowe said. “Between the certified letter, two people to come inspect it, they’ve got to write me another letter, mail that certified, and they’re going to send another copy to the house. The whole time — probably got a hundred dollars of somebody’s time wrapped up to tell me that my flag’s the right size.”
It’s hard to know why those other flags were missed, Benedict said. It’s possible the neighbors put them up after the drive-through inspection, or staff members may not have seen those flags, he said.
“What I’m saying is they didn’t see these other flags,” Benedict said. “It might sound peculiar, but it’s what I’ve heard from my staff.”
The Planning Department also sent notices to four non-residential property owners, including New Hope Baptist Church on N.C. 86, south of Hillsborough, which had a flag that was too large. The flag flying at the church now is in compliance.
The others — Five Forks Baptist Church in Hillsborough, Cedar Ridge High School and Gravelly Hill Middle School — had too many flagpoles. The flagpoles can remain but cannot be used to fly flags.
The county did not find any commercial properties with violations. Commercially zoned properties can have up to three flagpoles — each up to 54 feet in height — and up to three 96-square-foot flags.
Benedict, when asked whether the staff time dedicated to enforcing the flag rules was well spent, said it can be more difficult to enforce rural rules than those enforced in a limited, urban environment.
“The ordinances that are written are a reflection of the elected officials, and the elected officials are often a reflection of the people that vote for those offices,” Benedict said. “When new ordinances are put into effect, they’re handed down to us to be part of the mix (and the) pendulum can swing from heightened enforcement to more laissez-faire enforcement as time goes on.”