Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich on Confederate flag
After months of talking about a giant Confederate flag on U.S. 70, Orange County has new rules for raising flags on public and private property .
The owner of the 400-square-foot flag outside Hillsborough will have to replace it with a smaller version by next year, although he'll be able to keep his 60-foot-tall flagpole.
Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin missed the Orange County Board of Commissioners' 6-0 vote Tuesday night. The board didn't support Commissioner Earl McKee's suggestion, after an hour of public comment, that they move the vote to June 19 so more people could weigh in.
The new rules ensure "simple courtesy," Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said. He compared the issue to someone playing acoustic guitar on their deck vs. "blowing out your neighbors" with heavy metal music.
"It doesn't take away anyone's freedom of expression in the same way that regulating the volume of the music you play doesn't take away your ability to play music, enjoy music, talk about music," Marcoplos said. "It’s the volume, and it's the aggressive nature and the imposition that we're talking about.
Any new flags posted in the county's unincorporated areas — whether Confederate, U.S., sports team or decorative — can only be up to 24 square feet and flown no higher than 24 feet. The new rules limit property owners to three flags on a flagpole and require them to be erected 20 feet from all property lines.
Properties in nonresidential areas can have up to three 54-foot flagpoles, each with a 96-square-foot flag.
The rules do not apply to property in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Carrboro or Mebane.
Flags are protected speech under the First Amendment, but County Attorney John Roberts told the board that the U.S. Supreme Court and others have decided "content neutral" rules, such as those limiting the size and location of flags and flagpole height, are allowed.
Rules cannot discriminate based on the flag's content, he said.
The distinction was important because residents asked the county for the rules after landowner Robert "Doug" Hall Jr. got a county permit for his flagpole, which looms over U.S. 70. Hall and others raised the mega-size Confederate flag on April 28.
Resident Nan Fulcher said the county has put careful thought into how it regulates signs over the years, limiting the "blight or unrestricted in-your-face signs that many communities have suffered."
"Free speech is not an unconditional right," she said. "In setting a legal limit to free speech, one consideration is whether there are sufficient alternatives in place, other outlets for an individual or groups wishing to express the same idea, be it words or symbols to the public. ...That condition for free speech is met because what is limited is the size of the message, not content or nature."
However, Hall has said the county is trying to restrict his private property rights. He approached the group Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County (ACTBAC) for its help after the county identified land across the highway from his home to build a new jail.
ACTBAC, a self-described Southern heritage group, wants to raise 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.
The new rules are all about the Confederate flag, resident James Ward said Tuesday, and wouldn't be needed if not for "actions and efforts in the last few years by some people to ban everything Confederate in Orange County."
"All these efforts were made because some people termed these years-old symbols as offensive and made the baseless charge that they were threatening," Ward said. "These anti-Confederate heritage moves engendered a lot of resentment and downright anger among many people in this community. The reaction was predictable."
Multiple people spoke at an April 30 community conversation hosted by the Orange County Human Relations Commission and at the commissioners meeting Tuesday about the fear that they and others have experienced at seeing the huge Confederate flag.
Dylan Mole related how his friend and fellow UNC student Maya Little was threatened with lynching by ACTBAC followers after she was charged with defacing the Silent Sam Confederate statue on UNC's campus.
The Confederate flags are "massive symbols of white supremacy" that create a dangerous distraction for drivers and don't belong in the community, he said.
"Despite [ACTBAC's] heritage not hate facade, their sole purpose is to perpetuate the 'Lost Cause' mythology of neo-Confederate culture and to intimidate people of color," Mole said. "By erecting massive rebel battle flags along the highway, they are doing just that and telling those who are not white that they are inhuman and unwelcome."
ACTBAC founder Gary Williamson has threatened to take the county to court if the new rules are enforced.
"We need every supportive attorney on our side, we need every Southern brothers and sisters on our side and helping," an ACTBAC administrator posted on Facebook after Tuesday's vote. "We need everyone to focus and prepare for a long hard battle against the tyranny and overbearing rule of the Orange county commissioners. "
ACTBAC's goal of raising flags is separate from the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans campaign to raise Confederate flags across all 100 North Carolina counties.
Orange County's conversation is not over, said Commissioners Vice Chairwoman Penny Rich, who joined Commissioner Barry Jacobs in raising the idea of a continued public conversation about the Confederate issue.
"I still feel like people are divided," Rich said. "I think people left with their opinions, and I don't think anyone's mind was changed on how they think and how they're going to move forward."
▪ Homeowners can have one flagpole up to 24 feet tall and at least 20 feet from all property lines with up to three 24-square-foot flags
▪ Landowners in nonresidential areas can have up to three 54-foot flagpoles and three 96-square-foot flags
▪ Does not apply to property in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, Carrboro or Mebane
▪ Existing flags have to meet the new rules within one year, but flagpoles could remain until damaged, destroyed or replaced
▪ Flags painted on the side of a building would be considered art and don't have to meet the requirements
▪ Flags up to 12 inches tall could be displayed on grave sites in a cemetery