Thursday, September 29, 2022

Wilmington threatens to fine downtown bar, shuttered for three months, over year-old stairwell artwork

The mural on the stairwell leading to Pour House in downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — Bars across North Carolina have been shut down for three months, but that hasn’t stopped the City of Wilmington’s zoning office from going after a shuttered downtown business for a year-old mural that the city considers a historic code violation.

According to documents provided to Port City Daily, the city’s planning division has served the Pour House bar, located at Front and Market streets, with notice of possible civil penalties for violating the regulations established by Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Related: Here’s how Wilmington’s many historic districts and their code requirements work

According to a notice from the city, two inspections — on April 29 and June 9 — found a zoning violation, specifically the painted wall of the Pour House’s below-grade stairwell, which leads from the street to the bar. The mural was painted a year ago by artist Steen Jones, according to owner Joe Apkarian.

In the notice, the city’s code enforcement cited City ordinance section 18-95(B), which requires a ‘Certificate of appropriateness’ from the commission for any “exterior portion of any building or other structure, (including masonry walls, fences, light fixtures, steps and pavement or other appurtenant features), aboveground utility structure or any type of on-premises sign shall be erected, altered, restored, moved or demolished on such landmark or within such district until after an application for a certificate of appropriateness as to exterior features has been submitted to and approved by the historic preservation commission.”

Pour House stairwell, seen from street level. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

Under Wilmington’s ordinances, the zoning department can fine the bar $100 if the painting is not removed by July 10, with additional $200 fines if the painting remains after that.

Related: ‘Public nuisance’ or public art? Muralist wants Wilmington to change its ways

It’s not the first time businesses have clashed with the city over freedom of expression or accused the city’s ordinances and enforcement of being arbitrary. Many have pointed to the presence of modern facades of chain restaurants like Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Waffle House as obvious failures in the city’s attempt to ‘preserve historical appeal’ while enforcement officers have cited other businesses and residences for lesser offenses.

In addition to battles over ‘historical appropriateness,’ other businesses have fought the city over its definition of ‘graffiti’ and ‘art.’

For Apkarian, the timing of the potential fine is doubly troubling: first, it comes after the mural had been up for a year without issue and, second, it comes after his business has been shuttered for three months by Governor Roy Cooper’s executive orders.

The fact that 85 percent of the state’s bars, including those at restaurants, breweries, and distilleries, have remained open is another issue, although not one under Wilmington’s jurisdiction.

While all council members and Mayor Bill Saffo, along with the city’s spokesperson, were asked for comment on the timing of the code enforcement, so far none besides Councilman Charlie Rivenbark have responded. This article will be updated with any response if and when it is received.

Councilman Rivenbark noted that “unfortunately the fact that it has been there for a year doesn’t make a difference. Generally staff is reacting to a citizen complaint which may or may not be the case here,” adding that he would try to help with the fine if possible.

Rivenbark also weighed in on the broader issue of bars remaining closed under executive order. “I’m in favor of letting the bars open with the same precautions that others are following. To allow breweries and restaurants to operate and not bars is just plain asinine,” he said.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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