Prince Edward supervisors vote on permanent flag ordinance

Published 5:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2023

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FARMVILLE – Cindy Koether had a question. Like most of the Prince Edward County residents that filled up the Government Center Tuesday, she wanted to know how the county picked a 20 ft. height limit for flag poles or made any other decisions about the flag ordinance. 

“I was told by the Prince Edward administrator that it was decided by considering the height of flag poles already in existence,” Koether said. “In other words, the government decided how tall citizens needed the flagpole to be. It should not be up to the government to decide how much freedom a citizen needs to have.” 

One of several people who spoke up opposing the county’s current flag ordinance, Koether said she could understand restricting flags or flagpoles if it was in danger of falling on someone or if it interfered with drivers being able to see. 

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“But the arbitrary 20 ft limit to the height of the flagpole and the arbitrary limit to the size of the flag in Prince Edward County has nothing to do with health or safety,” Koether said. “You have already lost twice in court using taxpayer money to defend your restrictions on our free speech. The citizens do not want more taxpayer money wasted trying to take away our rights.” 

That pretty much summed up what the majority of speakers had to say. Each person said they didn’t understand how the ordinance benefited anyone. 

“The board of supervisors is trusted to protect and help the interests of the public,” said Prince Edward resident Brenda Puryear. “Help us understand how the restrictions in this ordinance will benefit the people of Prince Edward County. What’s the purpose? Nothing I’ve heard or read has anyone said anything about the flag being unsafe or breaching any other ordinance.”

The flag in question 

During the fight over the ordinance, both this board of supervisors and their predecessors were very careful not to say what specifically triggered all of this. They were very clear during Tuesday night’s meeting that the flag ordinance is a result of the county’s legal battle with Mrs. Carolyn Bowman, about the Confederate flag on her property. In the middle of that fight, on April 12, 2022, the previous board of supervisors put a maximum limit on the size of all flags in Prince Edward County. At that point, flags could be no larger than 40 square feet or 5 x 8. Flagpoles, meanwhile, could be no higher than 20 feet. The only way around the flagpole ordinance was through a special use permit, which the county has final say on.

To date, Prince Edward County has lost every lawsuit they’ve filed to try and force that Confederate flag to be taken down. Residents on Tuesday night questioned if those lawsuits haven’t done more harm to the county than the presence of one flag, when it comes to bringing in companies. 

“It has been said a data center would be deterred from coming to Prince Edward if they saw a Confederate flag in the area,” said Janet McGruder. “But wouldn’t they be more deterred when someone legally gets a permit, jumps through all the hoops that are required and that if you doesn’t like some aspect of it, (you) go into emergency meetings, then change the law and spend over $100,000 of taxpayer money in lawsuits to fight multiple times in the courts. I would think that prospective businesses would get much more upset with that fact. It is no wonder why we see tremendous growth in other countries but in Prince Edward, that’s not the case.”  

Flag ordinance draws different opinions

Overall, the public hearing lasted for more than one hour. Some residents questioned why the county continues making the same arguments over and over while losing the legal fight. 

“If you don’t think you’re going to win, don’t keep spending money,” said Kenneth Jackson. “I hope God will come in and put us back together as a county, because we’ve fallen apart. It wasn’t just COVID that did it. Look at ourselves. We should love each other. Any of us could drop dead tomorrow and yet we’re fighting over things that don’t mean a ****.” 

Farmville resident Mary Prevo said seeing the Confederate flag upset her. 

“That flag makes me sad,” Prevo told the supervisors. “It says I am not welcome here. My family is not welcome here.” 

She supported restrictions on the size of flags around the county. 

“If the only issue here is that the flag is too big and too tall, well, it is,” Prevo said. “It’s just too big, just too tall. It’s all you see when you come to the town.” 

Supervisors divided, vote on flag ordinance

Supervisors, meanwhile, were divided on the issue. Harrison Jones explained why he still opposed the flag ordinance, saying it was an arbitrary number. 

“We may have derived it from other flags in the community, but at the end of the day, we pulled it out of thin air and we don’t have any ground to stand on,” Jones said. “I’m afraid this is exposing the county’s position in lawsuits. Forefront in our founding fathers’ minds was the First Amendment, that’s why they made it number one, to protect free speech. I think ultimately the heart of this legislation, this law was enacted due to one particular flag and it’s gotten attention because there were unforeseen consequences, but this was an ordinance meant to silence what in some people’s eyes was offensive speech. But the First Amendment protects all speech, not just speech that is nice and loving. It protects uncouth, disrespectful and offensive speech.” 

He voted against keeping the flag ordinance in place, as did David Emert. They were the only ones in opposition, as a vote to keep the flag ordinance and make it permanent passed with all others in favor. Supervisor Cannon Watson said the county did what they could to alleviate the impact on the American flags in the area. 

“I think every single one (of the American flags) is in compliance now,” Watson said, mentioning that the 120 square foot limit should be enough to prevent future problems. “It is really large. It is larger than the surrounding counties that have restrictions and most of them do.” 

Watson pointed out that the county needs to focus on business, on building schools and marketing its assets, but they also need to address issues like this. 

“When someone tries not to be neighborly,” he said, referring to people putting up large flags near the edge of their property, “ this is a little bit of a curb on it.” 

Prince Edward chairman reflects

Supervisors Chairman Llew Gilliam Jr. was reflective, when talking about the decision to keep the ordinance in place. 

“My opinion is the Civil War was settled in 1865 and everybody went home. And we are all citizens of the United States of America,” Gilliam said. “We are all in this boat together. And I for one am as proud of this (American) flag as anybody could be. And I would like to see this flag flown everywhere. The dilemma we have been set upon here is when someone pushes the issue a little bit, that does offend. That does hurt. I don’t want anybody to be oppressed, hurt, pushed aside, ignored, that’s not why we’re here on this Earth. We’re all together here, we’re just trying to get everything smooth and nice.” 

What does the ordinance say now?

After Tuesday’s vote, the current ordinance says that residents can have three flags, totaling 120 square feet, on one parcel of land.

There was one change to the ordinance on Tuesday night. The county planning commission had suggested removing the flag restrictions when it comes to cemeteries in the area. Supervisors agreed and unanimously voted to incorporate that into the ordinance.