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There's a big debate broiling over a big flag in North Carolina.
The city of Statesville voted Monday night to keep its size limit for flags at 25 by 40 feet. It's the latest move in a battle over a massive American flag that flies above outdoors retailer Ganders RV — against local regulations.
The yearslong saga has put Statesville in the national spotlight and overwhelmed the city, population 27,000, with a flood of calls and emails from across the country. Some argue the city has been dragged into a national storm because of a PR stunt. Others say it's a free speech issue.
The flag in question measures 40 by 80 feet, nearly the size of a basketball court in the NBA. In May, the city filed a complaint saying that Gander RV must take down the flag and pay more than $11,000 in fines.
Marcus Lemonis, CEO of parent company Camping World, said in a video Tuesday he'll pay the fine and face any consequences from the city — but that the flag "will not come down."
John Staford, a Statesville city council member, supports Lemonis and introduced the amendment that would have increased the flag size limit.
"It has always been my belief that the American flag should not be part of our sign ordinance," Staford tells Here & Now. "Government has the responsibility to pass laws and ordinances that create order and safety ... this violates none of those parameters."
Staford says the city has changed its ordinances in the past. And his arguments closely resemble the points that Lemonis has made: The flag doesn't pose a problem for air traffic control, it doesn't infringe on other businesses and homes and it doesn't jeopardize anyone's safety.
"I believe he has a First Amendment right to fly that flag," says Staford. "And we as a city do not have a right to tell him he cannot."
Other city council members argue Lemonis is taking advantage of Statesville. Five of the eight members voted against the amendment on Monday, and many pointed to the history between Lemonis and the municipality.
The store applied for an exception to the law in 2015, according to The Statesville Record & Landmark. The city rejected the request "because an individual or business has to prove an ordinance is causing hardship to receive a variance," the paper reports. The issue came up again in 2017, to no avail for Camping World.
Then last year, the city bumped up its limits — from 8 feet by 12 feet — in the hopes that the compromise would pacify Camping World, according to the Record & Landmark.
Lemonis hasn't budged. He didn't return Here & Now's requests for comment, though on Twitter he said flags have been part of his business strategy for years and that the Gander RV controversy is not a marketing stunt.
But Roy West, another council member who voted against the amendment, says Lemonis has "abused and scammed" Statesville, according to the Record & Landmark.
"And I just don't think we ought to let him get away with it," West told the paper. "Camping World has just not shot straight with us from day one, and I think we're setting a horrible, horrible precedent by letting someone come in here and violate our ordinance when we made a compromise."
Another council member, Doris Allison, who also voted against the amendment, blames Lemonis for the attention on the city.
"We didn't put ourselves in this limelight," Allison told Staford on Monday, according to the Record & Landmark. "He put us in this limelight."
If there's anything that everyone agrees on, it's that the limelight has taken its toll. Staford remembers receiving up to 50 emails a day when the issue last boiled up, most from outside of the city — even outside the state.
"At one point the city had to actually turn its phone off because they could not handle the amount of calls that were coming in," he says. "If folks had a sewer backup or had their water mainline break, they couldn't reach the city."
Staford wants to close the book on the issue. Other council members, like William Morgan, signaled their unwillingness to compromise any further with their votes on Monday.
"At some point, you have to draw the line in the sand," Morgan told the Record & Landmark. "This is not about patriotism. My father was a World War II veteran. We're an all-American city. The size of the flag has nothing to do with patriotism. We're a nation of laws."
This segment aired on June 19, 2019.
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