What’s legal? Flag size becomes an issue in Prince Edward County

Published 3:58 am Tuesday, May 16, 2023

FARMVILLE – Joshua Amos put up his American flag on June 22, 2019. The Meherrin resident followed all the rules, reaching out to Prince Edward County staff to see if he needed a permit for his 72 square foot flag. At the time, there was no height requirement in place, so he was told no, you don’t need anything. 

“I’ve had nothing but compliments since I put it there,” Amos told the Prince Edward Board of Supervisors during their Tuesday, May 9 meeting. 

But then on Friday, May 5, Amos and several other residents received notices in the mail, saying their flags were in violation of county rules. The argument was that their American flags were too big. 

Prince Edward County created ordinance

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The issue stems from a decision the previous board of supervisors made back on April 12, 2022. That group approved an emergency ordinance, putting a maximum limit on the size of all flags in Prince Edward County. Flags can be no larger, the ordinance says, than 40 square feet or 5 x 8. Flagpoles, meanwhile, can be no higher than 20 feet. The only way around either of these ordinances is through a special use permit. 

But the people who received those notices in the mail didn’t understand why they were cited. All of them had their flags up before April 2022, so shouldn’t they be grandfathered in? And, other residents asked, why is Prince Edward County fining people who want to fly the American flag?

“Emergency order? You mean the flag became an emergency? An emergency is somebody getting killed,” said Rex Williams. He questioned why this was a focus for the county, pointing out that similar restrictions in other states led to court cases. “I think you need to reconsider this because you serve the county and there is no emergency about the American flag.”

Not all flags are grandfathered in

While all previous flags should be grandfathered in, these aren’t due to one fact. The flags eventually have to be replaced. Amos, for example, recently replaced his 72 square foot flag with a 60 square foot version. The original was grandfathered in, but the replacement isn’t. That’s why some residents ended up with notices on Friday, even though their flags had been flying for five or six years. 

Now Prince Edward does have the smallest height requirement out of the nearby counties. Amelia and Nottoway, for example, allow flags of up to 50 square feet. In Buckingham County, the limit is 64 square feet and in Appomattox County, it’s 72 square feet. In Prince Edward, again, it’s 40, with a limit of three flag poles per property, with each a maximum height of 20 square feet. 

Residents have also asked why the American flag couldn’t be exempt. Cite the rest, they argued, but set the American flag aside. The problem there is the Virginia Code, which requires all cities and counties to treat all types of flags the same. Prince Edward officials learned that over the last two years, in the court cases over the Confederate flag on Bush River Drive

“The county can only regulate the height of the pole, the setbacks on the property and the size of the flag, but not the content,” Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley said. “To do so (with content) has been seen by the courts as a violation of constitutional rights.”

Since the emergency ordinance was approved last April, five notices have been sent to land owners dealing with what the county calls oversized flags. Four of those were for American flags. 

Now the U.S. Flag Code does give a minimum and maximum for U.S. flags, but this only applies to those flown at “executive agencies”. That includes government buildings and similar operations. This order, which calls for a maximum of 20 feet by 38 feet, does not apply to residential homes or personal property. 

What happens now? 

Supervisor Harrison Jones proposed a solution at the May 9 meeting, suggesting the county focus on flagpoles and not flag sizes. 

“I hoped I would never see the day where our citizens face fines for being too patriotic or having an American flag that is too big,” Jones said. “This additional limitation of flag size is excessive. Let the flagpole determine the size of the flag.” 

Basically, if the flagpole can handle the size of the flag, then it should be allowed. 

“This was an emergency ordinance put in place by one situation and now we’re seeing unforeseen consequences,” Jones added. “I think the apprehension of the board is that yes, we’d all like to see American flags, but that freedom will be taken advantage of (by others). But I think that we live in a country where freedom belongs in the hands of the people.”  

His idea, which was supported by fellow supervisor David Emert, was at least temporarily held up by the rest of the board. Other board members said they needed time to better understand what this would mean. 

“What we want to do is get it right, so there’s no more questions from here on,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Llewellyn W. Gilliam Jr. said. 

Instead, supervisors agreed, with Jones and Emert opposed, to table this until June. Staff will stand down and not enforce the ordinance until their next meeting, not fining anyone currently found to be in violation. Both Jones and Emert had wanted the matter addressed during the May 9 session. The next meeting of the board of supervisors is set for Tuesday, June 13.