Brewmasters mural loses battle, war not decided

Wilson planning board approves rule change, rejects grandfather clause

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The technicolor painting on the side of Brewmasters was the catalyst behind a Tuesday recommendation by Wilson Planning and Design Review Board members to clarify the city’s position on murals, but the board went against a staff recommendation to allow the pub’s work to stay.

“To me, it is almost like the sign was put up and if we let it go by, fine. If not, they figured they’d ask for forgiveness,” said member Ralph Owens. “And I’m having problems with that.”

At the heart of the debate is an 85-foot-long mural painted by artist Dave Matthews that was commissioned by Brewmasters owner Morkos Youssef.

Youssef reportedly did not give Matthews parameters for the artwork and Matthews came up with the idea to spell “Brewmasters” in the negative space on his own.

The wall was finished in late 2016, but in early 2017, city code enforcement staff issued a violation order following reported complaints from residents. Brewmasters retained Farris & Farris attorney Rhyan Breen to appeal the decision, which led to a March 29 hearing with Wilson Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz.

Breen argued the mural was not intended as an advertisement, so it was not a sign and did not fall under those regulations. According to the city’s current Unified Development Ordinance, murals are listed under “art and architectural features” that do not require city permits and are defined as “integral decorative or architectural features of buildings or works of art, provided such features or works of art do not contain advertisements, trademarks, moving parts or lights.”

In May, Lentz upheld the code violation, but noted two paths Brewmasters had — a text amendment and an appeal to the Wilson Board of Adjustment.

Breen filed a text amendment application in May that sought to define several undefined terms — such as lawful noncommercial message — and the amendment was sent to the city attorney’s office for further study.

The amendment prepared by staff differs from Breen’s recommendation to judge the intent of the mural in favor of measurable standards, Lentz said. It also limits murals to no greater than 1,000-square-feet in area and limits “text, commercial trademarks or other commercial elements” to the size restrictions for wall signs.

“We seem to be going through a lot of effort to make a change to this text, and I guess I’m just trying to understand what was so wrong with the original ordinance and what we’re trying to fix here,” said member Gerald Daugherty. “We seem to be making a change that the sign that started this all [Brewmasters] isn’t conforming to anyway.”

Member Bruce Carroll also was vocal about his opposition to allowing Brewmasters to keep the mural that would not be allowed under the recommended regulations.

When it came time to vote, Owens made a motion to approve the staff-recommended text amendment without the grandfathering clause. Carroll seconded Owens’ motion and the five members of the planning board who were present cast their vote in support of it.

Member Charlie Pat Farris recused himself due to a conflict of interest in the case. He and Breen, who represents the business, work for the same law firm.

The board’s recommendation will go to the Wilson City Council for a public hearing on Jan. 18. The council can approve the board’s recommendation, alter it or table the discussion.

“We respect but disagree with the decision of the board,” Breen said Tuesday night. “We will continue to attempt to resolve this matter through the legislative process and look forward to being heard before the City Council regarding the full integration of the entirety of the text amendment offered by the city into the Unified Development Ordinance.”