BURGAW — A small Pender County town could be making changes when it comes to displaying public art.
A new ordinance was recommended for unanimous approval by the Town of Burgaw planning board Thursday evening that defines “murals.” The ordinance places limitations on where public art can be displayed and in the manner in which it’s done. It raised some concern from the Pender Arts Council, specifically following the removal of a controversial mural from a downtown building last year.
READ MORE: Controversial Burgaw mural: Will it stay or go?
“Pender Panorama,” designed by Canadian artist Danae Brissonnet in collaboration with Burgaw residents in 2017, was affixed to — not painted on — the abandoned EMS building, 108 E. Wilmington St. Its design caused backlash from residents.
The proposed ordinance would prevent it from being rehung, since it defines a mural as “a type of wall sign consisting of painted graphics or any other images that are painted directly on the surface of a wall.”
The new ordinance language specifies murals cannot be projected, suspended or mounted.
Last year, “Pender Panorama” had to be removed when commissioners approved redevelopment of the EMS building to become a community center. Pender Arts Council pushed for the art’s preservation.
Originally, the town and arts council jointly commissioned the artwork for $2,000. The town donated it to the arts council last year when it came down.
The art, now in four separate pieces, is currently in storage. Though not forgotten, Pender Arts Council president Austin Gaskins said the organization does not yet have a plan for its future display.
If the text amendment passes as written, it would not be allowed to be rehung in the town.
While in favor of a mural ordinance, which would increase the amount of public art in town, the arts council worries about the restrictive nature of the proposed language.
“We’re concerned that the restriction is made to only be painted on [a building]; that kind of prevents folks from putting up a mural and changing it later down the line,” Gaskins said. “The only option would be to repaint the entire building or wall.”
He recommended painting murals on sheet metal or plywood then affixing them to buildings, so they could be removed if needed.
According to planning director Gilbert Combs, research indicated the majority of towns define murals as directly painted on buildings, meant for permanency, not rotation. Combs said he is still looking at ways to find “Pender Panaroma” a home in town.
Burgaw currently does not regulate murals so this ordinance would be the first. Combs researched 11 statewide jurisdictions, including Wilmington.
In November, the City of Wilmington updated its ordinances allowing more flexibility in public art. Its changes separate art and murals from other wall signs, making it easier for property owners to display. Wilmington’s recent amendments do not specify whether a mural has to be painted directly on a building or not; it also limits the height to that of the principal structure or 12 feet.
Combs also looked at Leland and Surf City — which recently scaled its first mural — to determine best practices. Those towns all consider murals to be wall signs.
As such, the Town of Burgaw is following suit. Murals would not be permitted in rights-of-way, cannot obstruct motorists’ views, and must follow lighting rules.
Like wall signs murals also would require approval of a permit — on both private and public property — by the board of commissioners before being created. Applications for permits need building owner signoff and must include a maintenance plan.
The ordinance would not limit the size. Though not written into the amendment, the permit would only be required for structures within the commercial zoning district.
“Zoning regulations related to building design elements cannot be applied to one- and two-family dwellings, except for a few circumstances mentioned in North Carolina statutes,” Combs said. “This is why I left the distinction out [of the ordinance].”
Also, the location of murals is limited to the rear or side of buildings. They are not permitted on “primary facades,” meaning near the main entrance of the building. For corner lots, the front of the building is considered where the structure is addressed.
Murals also may not be painted on roofs or permanent fences.
Public art that is not maintained, fades or is in disrepair is considered in violation of the permit. A notice would be issued with a 30-day warning to fix the mural or appeal to the board of adjustment. If maintenance is still not done, the mural could be removed.
Planning board member Sam Guidry questioned who gets to approve the content on murals. Town attorney Zachary Rivenbark said it would be the property owner; the town “does not and cannot” regulate the content as it’s considered protected speech.
“I’m just amazed that we don’t have any control — I love free speech because I’ve got one of them — but man,” Guidry said.
Rivenbark said the mural could not incite violence, be “vulgar, racist, sexist, extremist” or contain obscene material.
“I think we, those of us here, need to be sensitive,” board member John Johnson said. “We cannot recommend, endorse or criticize in an official capacity the art because the art belongs to the property owner. We’re just allowing that expression to be created. Our personal opinions cannot be a part of that.”
Guidry used the example of “Pender Panorama”: “You either loved it or you didn’t.”
The abstract depiction of Pender County raised debate among town residents after its completion. Some called it “sinister” and “nonspiritual” — others simply did not like it from an aesthetic standpoint.
“All art is going to be that way,” Gaskins said. “If it’s not, you’re probably not pushing the boundaries or being expressive enough. Art is expected to have a little [pushback].”
Other concerns were raised from the board regarding the ordinance’s provisions about historic murals. As originally stated, “restoration of an historic mural that can be demonstrated to have existed previously shall be permitted, regardless of placement.”
Attorney Rivenbark suggested attaching a timeline to “historic,” as that could be up for interpretation. He brought up the example of a prior Coca-Cola mural, which was painted roughly two decades ago for a movie set in the 1930s, but it does not necessarily uphold historical significance.
“And, if I can add, someone has to want to restore the mural, too,” Combs said.
If a mural were to be painted for a movie set in the future — Burgaw has been the backdrop for numerous films, including most recently seasons one and two of “Welcome to Flatch” — the property owner would have to choose to retain it and it would have to meet the ordinance.
During the meeting, Combs amended the statement to read: “Restoration of an historic mural that can be demonstrated to have existed previously shall be permitted regardless of placement. Murals that have been permitted by a temporary zoning compliance permit may not be restored under the provisions of this section.”
No members of the Pender Arts Council showed up to speak at the planning board meeting, though Combs anticipates their feedback during the board of commissioners meeting, to be held March 14 at 5:30 p.m. The Burgaw commissioners will have the final say on the mural ordinance’s approval, which will coincide with a public hearing for resident input.
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