Bar owner appealing Wilmington’s determination that artwork is a sign

Bar owner appealing Wilmington’s determination that artwork is a sign
A view of the Pour House's artwork (Source: WECT)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - While cities like Whiteville and Carolina Beach are doing more to bring public art to their streets its a different story in Wilmington where a local business owner is fighting to keep artwork on the side of his bar after Wilmington’s Historic Preservation Committee deemed it a sign, and called for its removal.

The business, the Pour House, is located at the corner of Market Street and Front Street in Downtown Wilmington. It sits below grade and only a small portion of the artwork is actually visible from the street, however, the city’s Historic Preservation Committee denied an after-the-fact permit to allow the painting in 2020.

Now, owners are pushing back against that ruling and are set to argue their case in front of the Board of Adjustment later this month; Board of Adjustment hearings are quasi-judicial in nature and can overturn the rulings of other boards have made.

“The Board of Adjustment (BOA) reviews variances due to hardship that is brought on by meeting the regulations of the Zoning Ordinance. A variance is a requested deviation from the set of rules a municipality applies to a zoning ordinance, building code or municipal code,” according to the City of Wilmington.

At the heart of the argument, the city says the business was never issued a certificate of appropriateness (COA) for the artwork, which, city code deems a ‘sign.’

Despite being just a block apart, one mural is permitted to stay while the City of Wilmington has determined another one constitutes a sign and is not permitted.
Despite being just a block apart, one mural is permitted to stay while the City of Wilmington has determined another one constitutes a sign and is not permitted. (Source: Wilmington)

There are existing murals in Wilmington, but, the Pour House was targeted specifically due to the fact it is located in a historic district. Just one block away a mural is on full view on the street level, along with a dozen sponsors of the art. But, that mural and building are right outside of the Central Business District, exempting it from needing a certificate of appropriateness according to planning staff.

There owner of the Pour House and his attorney have challenged the city’s designation calling the artwork a sign, but since the city code does not define murals, city staff uses the language for signs to restrict murals.

The bar owner along with an attorney have challenged the ruling of the HPC in the past debating the merits of calling the artwork a sign.

“The mural is neither used as an announcement nor displayed to draw attention to the bar. Rather, the mural is simply a below-grade piece of decorative art that exists for art’s sake. It announces nothing. Nor does it draw attention to the establishment, for it exists solely below ground at a location where a person has already chosen to enter the bar at the basement entrance. The only thing that draws attention to the bar is the already-permitted sign that is above grade. Accordingly, I do not consider the mural to be subject to Chapter 18, Article 12 Regulations,” attorney for the Pour House Stephen Coggins wrote previously.

If the appeal to the Board of Adjustment is unsuccessful for the Pour House, the next step would be to take the city to court and ask a judge to review the city’s ruling. The meeting will be held at the Wilmington Convention Center at 1 p.m. on Feb. 18.

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