As far as most flags are concerned, Fountain Hills is a no-fly zone. Three business owners who displayed decorative flags with swirls, butterflies and the word "welcome" at their shops were made to remove their decorations after someone complained.
The flag flap isn’t just limited to the north East Valley town. Other Valley municipalities also have strict rules about decorative banners.
The problem began unfurling on June 22, when the business owners asked Kathleen Zanon of the town planning department if flying 3-by-5-foot welcome flags at Villagio Plaza, 16858 E. Avenue of the Fountains, violated the town sign ordinance.
After saying she checked the ordinances, Zanon gave a thumbs up to the request of Brenda Miller of Designer Consignor, Judi Yates of Yates Gallery and Victoria Barany of Ladies Tee Time.
Miller said the story changed after a complaint was lodged within days of officials moving into the new Town Hall in late July.
Town Manager Tim Pickering said the complaint was made during an anonymous phone call, of which no record was kept.
"If you’re breaking the law, the complainant doesn’t matter," he said.
Mayor Wally Nichols said it wasn’t "a big issue."
Town officials have apologized to the women for misinforming them.
Barany replaced her "welcome" flag with one bearing her company logo, but officials rejected that because she hadn’t applied for a use permit.
According to Scottsdale, Mesa and Phoenix officials, butterfly flags also wouldn’t be allowed in their cities.
Pickering said a signage ordinance has been on the books since Fountain Hills incorporated in 1989. He said A-frame advertising signs will be banned starting Jan. 1 because of size variances and an influx of them.
Fountain Hills’ sign ordinance states that one United States, one Arizona, one foreign national and one corporate flag can be flown on any structure. A sign permit is required for a corporate flag.
Richard Turner, planning and zoning administrator, said "welcome" flags are considered decorative types only permitted on model homes.
"If we (allowed) this, we’d really have no control," Councilman John Kavanaugh said. "One person’s tasteful banner could wind up with the person next door flying one with a flaming yellow monstrosity. To allow any stores to put up any kind of additional banners would be opening a Pandora’s box and turn the town into a carnival atmosphere."
Councilman Keith McMahan, who knows the three businesswomen, disagrees. He said the women should bring the issue to the council.
"The signage ordinance needs a total review," McMahan said. "I feel bad for these women. I would be in favor of a reasonable reinterpretation of the code."
Jane Minihan, owner of Sunset Gallery gifts at 16846 E. Avenue of the Fountains, said she thought town officials were getting "hung up on little things."
"Those three stores are the nicest downtown," Minihan said. "We (business owners) talked about it and none of us understand it. The town says ‘no’ to everything. When I moved here, I was told the town can be very unfriendly toward businesses and I didn’t believe it. After 10 years, I do."
Pickering said the ordinance would have to be changed, which can only be done by the council. As it stands "there are no variances," he said.
Yates said the women’s requests for special-use permits were already denied and they wrote Nichols and each councilman, but received no replies.
Miller said the women were told to take down their "welcome" flags in early August. Yates said town code enforcement officials visited the stores and threatened fines of up to $2,500 for a misdemeanor violation if the flags weren’t removed, though she didn’t recall which of two compliance officers allegedly made the statement.
Pickering said he doesn’t know if anyone gave the women that figure, but referred to town code that reads a first-offense fine is a maximum of $25 and confiscation. A second within 12 months of the first is up to $50, a third in the same time frame as much as $100.
Yates said she and her fellow merchants will likely try to get the issue on a council meeting agenda in hope officials aren’t unflappable.
Kavanaugh and Nichols doubt a change will be made. Kavanaugh said he’s open to proposals, but doesn’t think the council would support them.
Still, Miller and Yates said they weren’t resigned to waving a white flag just yet.
"Now that someone is saying we should bring it to the council, that’s what we’ll do," Yates said.