‘They would quickly become identifiable landmarks’
Supervisor Christine Smith says ball rolling to ‘craft a mural ordinance’
As “Welcome to Sperryville” painter Robert Archer explains to the Rappahannock News, “I’m trying to turn a potential negative into a positive . . . Thus, I’m petitioning the BOS to help create a countywide mural program.”
In a letter sent this past week to the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors, Archer, who also goes by the surname Chapman, petitioned the board “to initiate an RFP [request for proposal] calling for a county-wide mural program that will allow residents to identify and paint welcoming murals on structures.
“The goals of the proposed murals are to promote our county’s values, stimulate county pride and welcome visitors all the while keeping within the character of our rural setting,” Archer explained.
Last April, the Sperryville resident and business owner hand-painted an old-fashioned art mural on the side of his new Happy Camper Equipment Co. retail store, which extends to passersby the friendly greeting, “Welcome to Sperryville, Main Street — Est. 1820.”
One month later, an unidentified person brought the mural to the attention of the Rappahannock County Zoning Administration, pointing out that Archer never went through the required permit process to paint the “sign,” which some county residents extolled as a fine art masterpiece.
Since then, Archer, garnering supported from hundreds of county residents, has been fighting the county to keep the village sign — deemed nonconforming to Rappahannock County code — intact.
In submitting the new proposal to allow for additional murals in the county, Archer withdrew his application with the Board of Zoning Appeals for a “variance” to allow for the original mural because the board concluded it wasn’t authorized to issue a variance in this particular case.
“Murals have long been a recognized mechanism for fostering arts and tourism throughout American history,” Archer argued in his letter, “most notably through WPA [Works Progress Administration] arts programs of the 1930s. Artists were put to work designing and erecting images of identity and hope on the heels of the Great Depression. Murals are uplifting. Murals speak to the cultural values of their settings.
“Such welcome murals in Rappahannock will foster the already strong arts community while highlighting our rural character and historical charm to delighted visitors. They would quickly become identifiable landmarks and physical manifestations that our county is indeed welcoming.”
The business owner noted that since he painted the welcome mural, not only has it become “a widely supported and identifiable landmark in the village and county . . . countless visitors have photographed it, shared it, and in some instances, cited it as a reason they’ve visited Sperryville.
“In its short life, the mural has had a measurable impact on morale, village pride and even economic interests. There is overwhelming support for its existence and, as neighboring village residents have expressed, a desire to see similar landmarks throughout the county,” Archer pointed out.
Thus, he is requesting the BOS create the RFP, calling for program language that would allow for “similar welcome murals to be erected in our villages.”
Shortly before the Rappahannock News went to press Wednesday, Archer received an email from Piedmont District Supervisor Christine Smith, who stated: “To the extent that we [the BOS] can move forward, there will be an agenda item [at next Monday’s BOS meeting] requesting the Planning Commission craft a mural ordinance.
“This is the logical first step in the county undertaking any mural initiative,” Smith wrote to Archer.
The businessman suggested any such county-sanctioned program “would be well within established ordinances. County erected ‘signs’ are free from the permit process.”
Archer suggested the county could stipulate that all maintenance would be borne by the property owner and/or mural organizers, and the welcome murals would reference a geographic location, be free of commercial speech (identifying any particular business, logos or call to action), and be in keeping with the rural nature of Rappahannock County.
He also volunteered to work with the county, BOS and mural participants on all facets of potential murals including design, artwork, installation, planning and more.
Archer stressed that his “Welcome to Sperryville” mural was similarly “painted in good faith and under the belief that its content fell outside of the language of Rappahannock County signage ordinances.”
Archer also advised the BOS in his letter, dated June 20, that he does not want the merits of whether his mural is or is not a “sign” to be decided in Circuit Court, as he believes “there is existing case law to support its defense as a work of art/mural as well as strong 1st Amendment issues that can be argued.”
He said he hopes that by shifting the conversation to the BOS “it can be addressed without costly court involvement, without negative press from media and without changing existing ordinances.”
Meanwhile, County Attorney Art Goff, who was asked by chair Alex Sharp at the last BZA meeting whether the code for “variances” — as originally requested by Archer, but now withdrawn — extends to signs.
“In my opinion the type of ‘wall-art’ sign in this case is a common and recurring thing throughout the state and therefore the remedy here is in the formulation of a general regulation to be adopted as an amendment to the Rappahannock County sign ordinance, should the Board of Supervisors be so advised,” Goff wrote.
“In summary, there are three reasons that I think a variance is not authorized: variances of non-conforming signs are not covered by the Code; the hardship complained of in this case was created by the applicant; and, finally, the issue presented here could be resolved by amendment to the sign ordinance.”
— Patty Hardee contributed to this report