Micanopy divided over pennant flag displays
It's been a little over three weeks since a heated debate broke out between Micanopy residents and officials at a town hall meeting.
These weeks have raised questions about the town's ordinance regulating pennant flags, equal enforcement and whether the place that's believed to be Florida's oldest inland town is welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
Local business owner Joseph Pierce owns the Mosswood Farm Store and Bakehouse, located across the street from town hall. He thought the town was singling out pride flags with code enforcement violations.
“It seems to the local business owners here in town (that the town is) picking specific flags that have an LGBTQ orientation to them and asking that they be removed while other flags are being ignored,” Pierce said in an interview.
Next to the front door of Mosswood, a large rainbow swirl flag with a peace sign waved in the breeze. Pierce said he put up the flag after he learned about code enforcement letters the town sent to some local buisnesses. But he’s not worried about the town retaliating.
“We've been here for 15 and a half years. We're fairly respected business owners and we are allies of the LGBTQ community. We want to have a little bit of clarity when it comes to the town enforcing regulations and whether or not those regulations are being enforced to the letter of the law,” he said.
But what exactly is the letter of the law?
While many, like Pierce, think of pennant flags as triangular flags often donning the names of colleges or sports teams, Micanopy defines them differently.
According to the Micanopy land development code Article 7 Section 01.02, a pennant flag is defined as “any flag-like piece of cloth, plastic or paper attached to any staff, cord, building, or other structure at only one (1) or two (2) edges, the remainder hanging loosely.”
Town Administrator Sara Owen said pennants are popular because they’re “an inexpensive way to attract customers,” but these types of flags are restricted, regardless of contents, on Northeast Cholokka Blvd and part of U.S. Hwy 441. These areas are considered a historic part of town and are known as zones C1 and C2.
According to public records, Micanopy Mayor Ginny Mance spoke with Owen about pennant flags in multiple emails throughout November, 2022. In the emails, Mance mentioned having made multiple complaints for months, and that only a few shop owners were responsible for the repeated violations.
Owen eventually sent letters to four businesses notifying them of their code violations on Nov. 30, 2022.
She said in an interview last week with WUFT that despite what the town may think, the letters were not targeted at pride flags, but all pennant flags in the specific areas of town where they are not allowed. She said it was “disturbing” that the town was connecting the violation letters with pride flags.
Owen said to avoid conflict with business owners in her roles as both town administrator and code enforcement officer, she doesn’t seek out violations. Instead, she relies on tips and complaints like the ones from Mance.
The four businesses that received violation letters on Nov. 30 were Lost Ark Antiques, Lotus and Buddha Art Collective & Coffee House, a Sunoco gas station on U.S. 441, and a shop called Restless Mommas.
Neither the owner nor the manager of the Sunoco remembered receiving a violation letter, and both declined a request for an interview. The previously mentioned email record includes an attached picture of a large flag outside a produce stand on the property that reads “boiled peanuts.” That flag is no longer set up.
Lotus and Buddha’s owner also declined an interview request, but she said in a Facebook message that her shop is closing on Saturday, and that her sign was a main source of generating business. The email includes another picture of a large flag outside her shop, with a rainbow swirl design and text that reads “open.” That flag is also no longer up.
The manager and daughter of the owner of Lost Ark Antiques, Melissa Bambrick, said she received a letter in response to a small flag by the front stairs that read “Hate has no home here.” She said she doesn’t think the town has given enough of a reason for her to remove her flag.
“I don't understand how you can have hate in a very inclusive town. And so until we get an explanation, until legally we're told we can't wave these flags, they're gonna stay waving,” she said.
Lost Ark kept the small flag waving, and currently also has a large rainbow flag set up on its front porch, which Bambrick put up in response to the town’s letter.
The last business, Restless Mommas, has been the main subject of media attention after the owners decided to leave town, writing in a Facebook post from Jan. 14 that they felt “unsafe.” This is partially due to claims that Commissioner Mike Roberts allegedly made homophobic comments about the owners.
The meeting on Jan. 10 was wrapping up smoothly after an hour when someone in the crowd chimed in asking why they hadn’t discussed the claims. The discussion was added to the agenda, and Roberts told his side of the story.
He said a woman he was talking to in a Burger King asked him about Restless Mommas, to which he said he replied, “Do you mean the two lesbian women that bought a business downtown?” The discussion went on for another hour, with Roberts and town residents getting heated.
At one point, Roberts proclaimed, “You know the most discriminated person sitting in this room? That’s disliked by whites, Blacks, reds and yellows? Are the fat people of this world.” Roberts’ microphone cut out multiple times throughout the recording of the meeting as he continued. At the end of the meeting commissioners discussed buying an audio system for town meetings in the future.
Town Commissioner Jiana Williams said in an interview last week that she was disheartened to learn about the claims.
“This isn't an issue that can be swept under the rug, nor should it be swept under the rug. The only way to deal with it is to deal with it head on again. Accountability is very big for me,” she said.
According to Williams, despite the shop owners feeling unsafe by Roberts’ comments, he was technically protected under his first amendment right to free speech, and wasn’t acting in an official capacity at the time. But she said just because speech is protected doesn’t mean it’s right.
“Personally, I do feel that even with our freedom to say what is on our mind at any given point, our words have power, and because of that we have to be mindful of how we say things and how we articulate them at any given point, no matter if I'm acting in my capacity as a commissioner or as a mother or as a state employee,” Williams said.
In terms of what the town is doing to prevent future incidents, Williams said the commission hasn’t discussed anything yet, but she’s open to ideas.
“The times are changing, and if we desire to really be an inclusive town, we have to look at what that means in terms of our policies as well,” she said.
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners requested to meet with Micanopy’s commissioners to discuss the issue, but a date for that meeting has not been set.
The voice that some might argue matters most in this story, the voice of the owners of Restless Mommas, is missing from this reporting. This is because they requested to not be the center of media attention. They instead want to focus on moving on from their experience.
The owners posted on their shop’s Facebook page that they opened a part of their Gainesville business, Downtown Tabby Pet Store, as a temporary Restless Mommas while they regroup in Gainesville.
WUFT requested a written statement from the owners. They did not respond in time for publication.