Brewmasters victorious: Mural war ends with official OK

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The Wilson City Council chambers were akin to a full keg ready to be tapped Thursday as residents came out in throngs to raise a glass in support of Brewmasters.

“I agree that the city should be consistent, but times are always evolving and changing and we have to evolve with that,” said Ashley Coley, a bartender at Brewmasters. “I believe Brewmasters has brought innovation to Wilson.”

The 85-foot-long mural on the side of Brewmasters has spurred cheers and jeers since being completed in late 2016. In early 2017, city staff determined the artwork fell under the city’s sign regulations due to the size of the word Brewmasters incorporated in the painting, which officials said violated the size restrictions.

“We believe the Brewmasters’ artwork is a mural. It is an artistic mural,” Lentz said. “However, the (current) ordinance says to not be regulated, it cannot include advertisement, but because it includes the name of the business, we reached a conclusion it is within the definition of an advertisement.

“It is both art and an advertisement, and because it has an advertisement, our conclusion is it was not exempt.”

Brewmasters owner Morkos Youssef hired Farris & Farris attorneys Will Farris and Rhyan Breen to keep the mural intact. A hearing was held in March on the matter and in May, Wilson Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz upheld the violation. Brewmasters stayed the course with Breen filing a text amendment to clarify the city’s ordinance regarding murals in hopes of grandfathering the pub’s artwork.

“The confusion about whether it is an art or an ad is what started the violation. The confusion came because the business owner, the landlord and the artist all believed it is art, but someone came along and said it was not art, it is an advertisement,” Breen said. “That ambiguity needs to be cleared up and why we need to discuss this text amendment.”

The city attorney worked with city staff to develop an amendment to Wilson’s unified development ordinance with measurable standards for acceptable murals, which included a grandfather clause that would let the art at the center of the feud to remain.

Earlier this month, members of the Planning and Design Review Board agreed with the clarified regulation of murals, but did not approve the grandfather clause. The board’s recommendation was sent to the City Council for a public hearing and action Thursday.

Councilman Donald Evans said he spent some time Thursday afternoon looking at the painting, noting the artistic quality of it.

“It takes someone with an artistic mind to do all that and leave those letters in there. To tell me when he started he didn’t know Brewmasters would be in there, I totally agree with that, but as he laid it out, it became natural to him,” Evans said. “When I came tonight, I was against the grandfather clause, but I’m here to make a motion to accept the amendment with the grandfather clause.”

Evans’ motion was met with a raucous applause from the audience, but the council members weren’t initially convinced the amendment was the way to handle the situation. Councilman Michael Bell urged artist Dave Matthews to go back to the drawing board and rework the mural to bring it into compliance, while Councilman A.P. Coleman advocated that Brewmasters should pursue the litigation path instead of the amendment.

“I’m watching dollars and calories and brain cells be wasted on this thing that doesn’t mean anything. If this sign was to remain, it wouldn’t change anything,” said Mark Levin. “... Wouldn’t it be in our best interest to let this sign go just once and not make a big deal out of this? It makes sense to me.”

Bell eventually seconded Evans’ motion and it was approved unanimously. Youssef said he appreciated the outpouring of support and is glad the artwork will be around for years to come.

“In the beginning, I did not see this concluding in our favor, but I’m glad everyone put on their common-sense hats and reached this resolution,” he said. “I’m glad this is over with.”