Citing the rule of law and a process to approve permits for street signs, a group of citizens in the downtown historic district have retained local attorney, Phil Hoon, to voice their objections to a “Black Lives Matter” mural that would be painted on High Street and run from Water Street to Cross Street.

In a letter hand delivered to Town Hall today, Hoon said the concerns were based on the rule of law and “have nothing to do with, and are not about, the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Hoon said Wanda Boyer, Mariah Wood and Arlene Lee, who made a permit request at the July 6 Council Meeting,  have no standing to apply for a permit because the street is in a public right of way and is “essentially owned” by all the citizens of Chestertown.

“No person has the right to apply for a permit [on property] she or he does not own, unless the owner of the property signs the application,” he wrote. He also said if a permit request is to be made by other than the property owner, the permit requester must have the owner’s signed authorization.

The letter focuses on the proposed mural as a “sign” and not art. 

“Signs in Chestertown, particularly the Historic District, are subject to specific town regulations,” Hoon wrote citing the zoning ordinance. “No sign may project beyond the property line into a public way.”

Hoon said that the sign must be approved by the planning and zoning commission and currently no zoning ordinance exists that allows for street signs to be painted on the street. He said allowing the murals would require a text amendment change.

He said the Historic District Commission would also be required to weigh-in “to approve all exterior construction activities in the town’s Historic District.”

But Section 62 of the Town Charter: Control of public ways appears to give the Town Council greater purview over streets. 

“The town shall have control of all public ways in the town except such as may be under the jurisdiction [jurisdiction] of the Maryland State Highway Administration. Subject to the laws of the State of Maryland and this charter, the town may do whatever it deems necessary to establish, operate and maintain in good condition the public ways of the town.”

Public ways include “streets, avenues, roads, highways, public thoroughfares, lanes, and alleys.

Updated: In response to the letter, Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he felt Hoon’s clients were asserting “privilege” rather than the “rule of law.”

“It’s as if one segment of property owners has authority over what other taxpayers may wish to happen on public streets.” Tolliver wrote to the Kent Pilot. “The Historic Commission has no authority over the streets.”

“I understand the right to express concern toward decisions made that are not popular,” he continued.  “What I challenge is the effort to “bully” me into a position when my position is different from yours. The most blatant act of systemic racism is the use of the so-called “rule of law” that only comes out when privilege is perceived to be under attack.”

Arlene Lee, Co-Chair of the Social Action Committee for Racial Justice said the objections by Hoon’s downtown clients may be premature.

“Any official action or comment on a lawsuit that hasn’t been filed yet — about a permit request that hasn’t yet been submitted — would be inappropriate,” she wrote. “We find it interesting that even the mention of a mural, on the street, would bring out such vitriol.” 

“It is particularly surprising when the discussion is so pointedly relevant to current events and the history of our town,” She continued. “We wonder why it is so distressing to even contemplate a temporary painting on a street designed to tell black folk here and elsewhere that their lives matter to Chestertown?  Regardless, we think everyone should save the comments, and the threats, for after the permit request has actually been filed.”

“Then, everyone can see the design, read the plan, and decide for themselves if the beauty of our historic town can bear up under the weight of a bit of temporary paint. These are the conversations that Chestertown needs to have in order to reconcile the gaps between the reality of the values we say we espouse and the reality that members of the Black community feel unvalued and unwelcomed. Lastly, and most importantly, the members of the Black community in Chestertown do not believe these murals will happen. They do not have faith that Chestertown believes they matter. Will the town confirm that belief, once again?”

feature photo: Flickr/Anne Meador