Giant Confederate flag still waves over Hillsborough. Time to replace it has passed

A huge Confederate flag could fly over U.S. 70 in Orange County into the summer, despite rules approved last year that required the property owner to replace it with a smaller flag by May 15.

Robert “Doug” Hall Jr. and others raised the 400-square-foot Confederate battle flag just west of Hillsborough on April 28, 2018. In October, the remnants of Hurricane Michael ripped the flag from its 60-foot pole and twisted it around the branches of a nearby tree.

A new flag that was raised in its place exceeds the county’s 24-square-foot limit on residential flags, which went into full effect this month.

Hall has not received an official violation notice yet, Assistant County Manager Travis Myren said in an email Thursday. Orange County Commissioners Chair Penny Rich said the board talked about the issue in a closed session Thursday, and it could come up again at the board’s meeting Tuesday.

County staff first plans to revisit multiple sites where large flags were found last year and see which ones still violate the new rules, he said. That work, which involves at least 20 flags, could take until the end of July, he said. Notices will be sent to all the property owners once the inspections are done.

“We have to be careful, because it’s not just that particular flag that would be subject to a notice of noncompliance,” Myren said. “That’s why we have to treat all of flags in the county consistently.”

The rules do not require flagpoles to be replaced until the property owners voluntarily remove them or they are knocked or fall down.

The rules do not apply to property in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Carrboro or Mebane.

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A Confederate flag flies over U.S. 70 in Orange County, North Carolina. File photo

Southern heritage

Hall raised his flag last year after getting a county permit for his flagpole. Members of Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County, a Southern heritage group based in Snow Camp, provided the flagpole and helped Hall raise it.

The group vowed last year to raise Confederate battle flags across Orange County because of what its members see as the censorship of Southern history there, 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.

Orange County residents who learned about Hall’s plan to raise the flag petitioned the Orange County commissioners to set new rules, which were approved on May 15, 2018.

Heather Redding, one of a group of residents who pushed to get the rules changed, said Friday by email that she understands why the county is moving slowly, but an enforcement plan already should be in place to be used as violations are found.

“I know many community members in Hillsborough who are ready for the eyesore on Highway 70 to be regulated, as we know it was erected as a form of racial intimidation,” Redding said. “I hope county staff make compliance a priority and act with urgency, as community members — black folks in particular — shouldn’t have to see such a visible reminder of white supremacy every time they drive on Highway 70.”

County Attorney John Roberts advised the commissioners last year to limit the rules to the size of flags and flagpoles — not the content of the flags — to avoid violating anyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech.

The board approved different rules for residents and commercial property owners:

Residential: Up to three flags can be posted on a single flagpole. Flagpoles can be up to 24 feet tall and must be erected at least 20 feet from all property lines. Flags can be up to 24 square feet.

Commercial: Up to three flags and three flagpoles are allowed. Flagpoles can be up to 54 feet tall and must be erected at least 20 feet from all property lines. Flags can be up to 96 square feet.

Although the commissioners back the new rules as a way to keep large flags from dominating the local skyline, many of the comments made by commissioners and the public last year were about the Confederate flag and what it represents.

Hall and his supporters have said the county is trying to restrict his private property rights. ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson has threatened to sue the county if the new rules are enforced. Neither Hall nor Williamson responded this week to requests for comment.

The county has multiple enforcement options if Hall and others don’t comply, Myren said, from revoking any permits to seeking an order from the courts and fining the property owners.

“When the flag came down during the storm, [Hall] was notified of what the options might be,” Myren said.

The county’s land-use rules spell out the process for enforcement, noting the responsibility falls to county Planning Director Craig Benedict for determining how much time someone can have to fix a violation.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.