A merchandise restriction leads the Athens fair board to withdraw its permit request for a new fence

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The owner of the fairgrounds withdrew its application to build a fence on city property because it was being asked to restrict the sale of merchandise branded with Confederate flags among other things.

Athens City Hall is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
Athens City Hall is seen in Athens, Ohio, on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
“The city has included stuff in that (ordinance) that we cannot do because we had a vote on it by our membership,” Matt Day, president of the Athens County Agricultural Society, told WOUB. “And by law, we can’t do it.”

Building a fence in the city’s right of way requires approval from the City Council. The ordinance that would have granted this approval included the following language:

Due to the relevance of the Union Army on this site, the permit shall be contingent upon said owner not allowing vendors to sell paraphernalia promoting seditious organizations or hate groups during the fair, or any other times the fairgrounds is being used.”

The Agricultural Society, which operates the fairgrounds, objected to this condition and withdrew its application for a permit to build the fence. Day said the fence will still get built, but it won’t pass through the right of way.

The society’s membership previously took up the sale of Confederate-branded merchandise at the fairgrounds and voted not to ban it. Day said the fair’s board of directors cannot simply overturn this vote.

The city’s attorney also raised concerns about the ordinance.

“I think that there might be a legal issue as far as making the fence contingent, or that section contingent upon the restriction that we were going to place that’s in the ordinance,” Athens Law Director Lisa Eliason said at the June 12 council meeting. Eliason said the city would likely open itself up to a lawsuit if it approved the ordinance with the restriction.

Some council members were hoping to use the society’s need for a permit as an opportunity to push for something more attractive than a chain-link fence. A row of homes is located across from the fairgrounds on Herrold Avenue, where the new fence section will be built.

Council members didn’t want neighbors to have to look across the street at a chain-link fence, and were concerned about how this might affect their property values.

With the society’s withdrawal of its application, the city no longer has any leverage to make the fence aesthetically pleasing.

“This could have been a whole different conversation had they just as a city come to us,” Day said. “I’ve had one city council member call me and I have honestly tried to have several conversations with the mayor, and he will not speak to me.”

Athens Mayor Steve Patterson told WOUB that he has not received any communication from Day.

Patterson said that if a chain-link fence does go up, the city could do some landscaping to improve the appearance of the fence line when it rebuilds Herrold to connect from West Union through to West State Street.