A code enforcement officer in Rehoboth Beach, Del., became the target of a radio talk show host last weekend after the officer told the gay bar and restaurant Aqua Grill that it violated a local ordinance for flying a flag two inches too low over the sidewalk next to its entrance.
The civilian enforcement officer informed Aqua’s manager of the code violation on May 13 after determining that a flag with the inscription “Open – Welcome to Beautiful Baltimore Avenue” dipped below an 80-inch minimum height restriction for flags extending into public spaces, according to Aqua Grill co-owner Joe Maggio.
“He said we were being cited and we would receive a letter in the mail,” said Maggio, who told the Blade he couldn’t confirm over the weekend whether the bar would be fined for the height violation.
“He could have come in and said, ‘hey, it needs to be raised two inches.’ And we would have been happy to pull out a drill and move it,” said Maggio.
The popular bar and restaurant decided instead to have someone shear off the bottom of the flag with a pair of scissors to comply with the height restriction, Maggio said.
A city official said on Monday said Aqua Grill wasn’t fined and that the enforcement officer only issued a warning, saying the city would give the establishment time to correct the infraction.
But news of the enforcement action created a stir when an Aqua Grill customer present during the visit by the enforcement officer posted an account of the incident on Facebook.
Sussex County radio host Dan Gaffney joined gay supportive Delaware State Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth Beach) and other Aqua Grill customers in criticizing the city for appearing to be hurting local businesses through unnecessary regulations.
“This is stupid beyond belief,” Schwartzkopf wrote on Facebook. “In this economy, they are hassling businesses? I thought it might’ve been the American flag but we are talking about an ‘Open’ sign!”
Rehoboth Beach City Manager Gregory Ferrese said on Monday that the code enforcement officer has found violations of the height restriction for flags in 29 businesses so far this year. He said no specific type of business was being singled out in the enforcement action and that all businesses contacted so far have been given warning notices rather than a fine.
Ferrese and the city’s public works director, Mel Craig, who is gay, told the Blade that enforcement of the height regulation for flags hanging over public spaces like sidewalks was prompted by complaints from the public.
“I’ve gotten hit in the face by flags on a windy day when I walk down the sidewalk,” Craig said.
“If a kid gets hit in the eye with a flag, that’s a big deal,” said Ferrese.
According to Ferrese, city regulatory officials determined that the city is required to enforce the flag height restriction in order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, a federal law. The law, among other things, requires cities and towns to make sure the “path of travel” along public spaces such as sidewalks doesn’t include a potential obstruction for people with disabilities, including blind people.
An ADA official with the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, which enforces the statute, said the law and the regulations implementing it make no specific mention of flags, only that local jurisdictions should ensure that sidewalks and other public spaces don’t create a hazard for disabled people.
Jacques LeClair, owner of Rehoboth’s Proud Book Store, said he was among the first businesses approached by code enforcement officer Bobby Edmonds about flying his own flag below the height restriction.
“He was very polite. I got a letter from his office saying I was in violation,” LeClair said. “They gave me a period of time to correct it. I corrected it.”
LeClair added, “It’s not that they are picking on any one person or business. They are picking on everyone.”
Chris Beagle, a Rehoboth real estate agent and Aqua Grill customer, said the flag enforcement visit at Aqua raised concern within the local LGBT community because of its timing. He noted that it came on the first day Aqua opened for business for the 2011 beach season.
Beagle noted it also came eight months after Aqua’s other owner, Bill Shields, was mistakenly arrested and finger printed for allegedly violating another ordinance that prohibits restaurants and bars from allowing customers to stay on outdoor patios after 11 p.m.
Police raided 12 establishments for the patio violation during a crackdown last year that took place mostly over Labor Day weekend. Authorities now admit that Aqua was among just two or three of the establishments that were incorrectly targeted for the crackdown.
Shields said a Rehoboth Beach police officer who arrested him refused to listen to his attempt to explain that Aqua and other establishments that were in business before the patio ordinance was enacted are exempt from the ordinance through a grandfather clause.
Rehoboth’s police chief later acknowledged that the officer made a mistake by arresting Shields, saying the officer wasn’t aware that Aqua was exempt from the ordinance. Police later dropped the charge, but Shields said authorities have yet to follow through with a promise to expunge his arrest record.
With that as a backdrop, Beagle said the code enforcement visit to Aqua over the flag issue last weekend was “really bad timing” and a development that could give the impression to the LGBT community that a gay business is being targeted.
“It was very disheartening to see this happen on opening night,” said Beagle, who was present at the bar and saw Edmonds arrive wearing a jacket with the inscription “Code Enforcement.”
Maggio said he and other business owners and longtime residents of Rehoboth, both gay and straight, are “fed up” with what they view as an anti-business attitude in a city whose economy is dependent on small businesses.
He said he and others dissatisfied over the city’s regulatory policies are supporting gay businessman Thomas McGlone, an investment adviser, who is running against longtime Rehoboth Mayor Samuel Cooper in the city’s Aug. 13 mayoral election.
Cooper disputes claims that he is anti-business. He has said he supports local laws and regulations that prevent bars and other entertainment establishments from spoiling Rehoboth’s status and tradition as a family-oriented vacation destination.
Two of the city’s six elected commissioners, Dennis Barbour, who is gay, and Pat Coluzzi, who is lesbian, say they favor a balance between regulations needed to prevent disruptive businesses and assurances that businesses aren’t hurt by overregulation.
The two have spoken out against the patio crackdown last year and called for regulatory changes.