WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - When the City of Wilmington ruled that a piece of artwork commissioned by a renowned mural artist was a sign and had to be removed from the basement steps of a downtown bar it raised some eyebrows.
In response to the city’s determination, the owner of the bar the Pour House, filed an appeal with the Board of Adjustment (BOA) - and as it turns out - he was not the only one who thought applying sign regulations to art was wrong.
In a 4-1 vote, the BOA remanded the decision back to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) with the condition that they not apply signage language to the request for a certificate of appropriateness.
So, how could a piece of art be considered a sign, especially when it does nothing to advertise the business it is painted on?
The city code defines a sign as, " Any structure, part thereof, or device attached thereto or painted or represented thereon or any material or thing, illuminated or otherwise, which displays or includes any numeral, letter, word, model, banner, emblem, insignia, device, trademark or other representation used as or in the nature of an announcement...”
However, city code does not define murals so planning staff and code enforcement allow them through the the classification as a sign, Zoning Administrator Kathryn Thurston said late last year.
On Feb. 18, the BOA deliberated for more than an hour on the case as an attorney for Pour House argued his case.
Ultimately, the board decided that the HPC had to revisit the request for a certificate of appropriateness, and also determined that the HPC only had jurisdiction over two of the three walls in question. Finally, the BOA remanded the decision back to the HPC to consider the painting as a mural - not a sign.
Owner of the Pour House Joe Apkarian said he was grateful for the decision the BOA made, it’s not the outcome he was hoping for.
“While I am extremely grateful and happy that the board of arbiters said that the artwork is in fact a mural not a sign, I am disheartened and saddened that they did not issue a certificate of appropriateness on the spot and they have kicked it back down to the Historic Preservation Commission,” he said.
Dealing with the city while also trying to deal with COVID-19 and the shutdowns bars across the state have faced is also upsetting for Apkarian.
“We’re being bled dry,” he said.
For Apkarian, the fact the city is working to get rid of public art is also surprising.
“Everywhere else you look in this country in this state, Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh ... Everywhere you look there’s art - there’s murals, and you look at Wilmington and it’s absolutely comical that we are going through litigation to cover up an internationally renowned artist ... That’s why we will never be Asheville, we will never be Charleston,” he said.
It is unclear how the HPC will rule on the painting since, as previously mentioned, the city does not define or currently have any city code addressing murals. It is also not yet known when the HPC will revisit the request but it will likely be seen at an upcoming meeting.
For more coverage on the ongoing debate click the links below.