New Mich. law lets restaurant keep flags honoring police, military

The new law contradicts a signage ordinance, which limits the number and size of flags being flown by a business

Justin P. Hicks, Walker, Mich.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — For years, David Warsen Sr. has been left with a feeling of joy as he drives past Brann’s Steakhouse & Grille and sees the flag commemorating his son, a Navy SEAL who died in 2012 while serving in Afghanistan.

A similar joy washed over Warsen Sr. last week when he got a call from the restaurant’s owner, informing him that the fight to continue flying the flag, and others like it, was over.

“If you talk to most people who have lost a child, the No. 1 thing they say is you don’t want their memory forgotten,” Warsen Sr. said. “To be able to see the flag when I go by … it just gives me great joy knowing people are thinking about my son and his memory continues to live on.”

On Dec. 27, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that prohibits local governments from creating zoning ordinances that would regulate signs on or within a building if the sign commemorates police, firefighters, medical first-responders, members of the U.S. armed forces or U.S. veterans who have died in the line of duty.

The new law contradicts Grand Rapids’ signage ordinance, which limits the number and size of flags being flown by a business. Brann’s Steakhouse was notified in February that it exceeded the signage limit, but owner Johnny Brann declined to reduce the number of flags.

Brann said he would pay a fine if he had to, but he refused to take down the signs, which memorialize David Warsen Jr. (U.S. Navy), Robert Kozminski (Grand Rapids Police), Eric Burri (U.S. Army), Trevor Slot (Walker Police) and Kevin Marshall (Michigan State Police).

“This was never about me,” Brann said. “It was about the fallen heroes and their families. They just don’t want their sons forgotten and I wasn’t going to let that happen.”

Brann’s fight caught the eye of U.S. Army veteran and state Rep. Jason Wentworth, R-Clare, who authored House Bill 6063 to amend the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. The bill was co-sponsored by other veterans in the House.

“I wanted to see if this was localized or happening around the state,” Wentworth said. “What I found was this wasn’t a widespread issue but there are other local municipalities with similar ordinances against flags and signage. Some of that I can understand but I can’t understand prohibiting a flag or sign that commemorates military heroes or firefighters or police or first-responders killed in the line of duty.

“Businesses should be honored and respected for displaying them, not prohibited.”

Wentworth said the bill received overwhelming support around the state. It passed the House, 91-15, and the Senate, 38-0, before being signed into law by Snyder on Dec. 27.

The law will go into effect in late March after 90 days.

Grand Rapids’ planning department staff will review the new law to determine how it affects the city’s zoning ordinances and what changes need to be made. As it stands, Grand Rapids’ zoning ordinance allows businesses to have one of each type of sign -- banner, projection, flag, etc. -- per street frontage. A building isn’t allowed more than three flags on any one lot, and each flag can’t exceed a size of 5 feet by 8 feet.

Wentworth said he doesn’t believe the law will lead to businesses getting out of control with their signage.

“It’s not going to be an issue, because it just isn’t,” he said. “Common sense says it’s not going to happen, and if it does, we’ll address it then. You won’t see changes in the community, but you’ll see those flags remain up. And if others want to do the same, they can.”

Brann never paid a fine to the city and didn’t end up applying for a variance in an effort to dodge the ordinance. He said the almost $4,200 raised by supporters to fund his fight has been donated to a handful of pro-police organizations, including Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).

With his fight to keep the flags in the rearview mirror, Brann said he plans to add a few more flags to commemorate additional fallen heroes.

“I’m not trying to rub it in,” Brann said. “What we have up now is in good taste and it’ll be the same with anything else we do.”

To Warsen Sr., having the flags stay up is “extremely special.”

“The big thing is that all of the fallen heroes are being remembered here,” Warsen Sr. said. “It does a lot of good for not just me, but for my whole family and friends to honor my son. I appreciate Johnny’s effort, and (lawmakers) got this one right.

“They restored some of my faith and confidence in our (Legislature).”


©2019, Walker, Mich.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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