Phoneman Vs. The Witch Hunters

March 9, 2019 Off By Jay Hubbard

The Town of Ramseur has been pursuing a zoning violation case against Tim Matthews for several months now. Tim owns several properties downtown, but he is probably best known for his Phoneman business. Mr. Matthews has owned the building in question for over six years.

Shortly after purchasing the property, located at the corner of Main and Carter Streets downtown, Mr. Matthews hired local artist Reggie Robbins to paint a large silhouette on the side of his building.¬† Since then Tim has added several other signs and paintings to the wall. Over the years Tim Matthews also purchased several sign permits from the Town of Ramseur in order to comply with local laws and ordinances. In short, Tim Matthews has jumped through every hoop placed in front of him by our local government, every time he’s been asked to do so.

According to Mr. Matthews, when the artwork was first placed on the wall six years ago, the mayor and several commissioners stopped and showed their appreciation and approval of the work. None ever expressed any dislike or other sign of offense.

Sometime last year, Mr. Matthews was informed that the signage and artwork on his building did not meet current zoning requirements. Since then Mr. Matthews has gone out of his way to try to comply, including removing several signs he had been legally permitted to hang after paying permit fees at the municipal office, but so far his efforts have not satisfied Ramseur’s sign police.

During the February board of commissioners meeting, Mr. Matthews requested a ninety day extension to come into compliance, and pointed out that, according to conversations he’d had with Mr. Pinnix, a code enforcement officer contracted by the town, the board could simply declare his painted signs to be works of art, which would have brought all of the signage into compliance. During that meeting, Commissioner David Overman suggested the board should make such a declaration, but Commissioner Cheek insisted on moving forward with his motion to grant the extension and continue pursuing the case. After much debate the extension was granted. You can watch the full exchange in the video below.

At the March board meeting, Commissioner Overman again made a motion that the Board accept Tim’s painted signs as artwork, and Commissioner Caudle seconded. Commissioner Cheek refused back down from his position, stating, in so many words, that granting a variance would set a precedent, forcing the board to make similar accomodation for anyone making such a request in the future. Mr. Cheek also suggested that the board have Mr. Pinnix return to Ramseur and measure the signs again before the board makes its final ruling.

Bear in mind that Mr. Pinnix bills us every time he makes a trip here and every time he makes or receives a telephone call regarding code enforcement. We paid him $36 last month for two calls between himself and Mr. Matthews totalling about 45 minutes, so this particular case has already cost taxpayers at least a few hundred dollars; all because certain commissioners cannot see fit to call artwork art.

Commissioner Cox addressed Mr. Matthews, saying that there’s so much going on on his wall that he cannot even choose one thing to look at. He further stated that the purpose of the downtown overlay is to protect the town in situations like this. He continued, “The board has had no mercy on me, as far as my situation,” and asked why the board should treat Tim Matthews any different than it’s treated him.

The situation Mr. Cox refers to is the fact that he lives illegally in a travel trailer behind the barber shop he rents on Main Street. In fact, Randy Cox has gotten special treatment from the board. He was granted 90 days or more -until April 15, 2019 – to find a permanent residence somewhere in town and vacate the travel trailer. Meanwhile, another citizen accused of living in such substandard housing on Brooklyn Avenue was given no such accommodation when their violation was reported. Randy Cox’s feeble attempt at equating his “situation” to Tim’s public art does only one thing: it lays bare just how tone deaf and ignorant Mr. Cox really is.

Grant Cheek then attempted to justify his position, saying that people often erect signs and then apply for permits after the fact, or that they buy permits without supplying a site plan, but those arguments are ridiculous. If a site plan is required for a sign permit, who is issuing permits without a site plan, and why? This entire issue seems like nothing more than a thinly veiled witch hunt against Tim Matthews.

Commissioner Caudle spoke up next and stated that perhaps the board should seek direction from the community. She then turned to the crowd of at least fifty people observing the meeting and asked their opinion. The consensus was overwhelming: those signs are works of art and Mr. Matthews should be allowed to go about his business in peace.

The question was called and Mayor Shaw stated, “If you’re in favor of leaving the signs on the building and considering them artwork, raise your hand?” Commissioners Overman and Caudle voted in the affirmative. Commissioners Cheek and Cox voted against. The mayor was forced to break the tie since his other yes man, Commissioner Smith, chose to skip the meeting after his temper had gotten the better of him earlier in the afternoon.

This put the mayor in a very uncomfortable position. He said, “I’m here for one purpose, and that’s to break a tie. Tim, I would say that if you get Dennis (Pinnix) down here, and approve your square footage, I would go along with you leaving those signs on that building. But if you’re not in compliance, I’m going to have to vote no; I will not accept it as artwork. If you want to get with Dennis, and have him get with us about those signs, we will reconsider at our next month’s meeting.”

Commissioner Cheek quickly moved that the board rescind their vote, “get with Dennis (Pinnix),” and move forward at the next monthly meeting, effectively kicking the can further down the road and making the entire previous discussion little more than wasted time and money. The motion was passed with no discussion.

Mr. Shaw and Mr. Cheek want to pay the code enforcement contractor for yet another trip to town, at $48 per hour, to inspect a wall he’s already measured at least twice, and if by some miracle the numbers come up different they¬† will change their votes and declare this artwork to be legal public art. I have to wonder if Mr. Shaw and his cohorts, Mr. Cox and Mr. Cheek, know how utterly childish and petty this makes them all look. Code variances are permitted exceptions to rules; something Grant Cheek certainly enjoys five days each week.

This entire issue revolves around one piece of painted artwork: the Phoneman figure. All the other signs and paintings on that wall apparently cover five percent or less of the total space, but the figure takes up about double that amount. The Phoneman image has been on that wall for six years without incident. What about the Coca-Cola mural on the wall across the street, facing Brooklyn Avenue? It definitely takes up more than five percent of that wall. Why aren’t the owners of tha building being dragged through the Ramseur mud like Tim Matthews has been?

These grown men, Cheek, Cox, and Shaw, are wasting taxpayer money by nickels and dimes, all because giving Tim Matthews – an actual property owner downtown – a tiny variance to leave his artwork in place would leave the town open to some hypothetical legal challenge down the road. I wasn’t born in a barn, but I know it when I smell it.

Give me a break, gentlemen, you’re out of order.

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