Does rainbow-colored hydrant in Elon have LGBTQ message?

QUESTION: Is the town of Elon trying to promote pro-LGBTQ attitudes by repainting a fire hydrant to prominently feature a rainbow? Is this multi-chromatic motif even allowed under state regulations?

ANSWER: It wasn’t a pot of gold but an outraged citizen that officials in Elon apparently found at the end of the proverbial rainbow.

According to Elon’s town manager Richard Roedner, this disgruntled resident of Gibsonville stirred up quite a firestorm earlier this month when he noticed a custom-decorated fire hydrant at the corner of West College and North Williamson avenues that includes, among other things, a rainbow in its design.

Roedner added, however, that this hydrant’s décor isn’t meant to convey any particular message on behalf of the town or anyone else for that matter.

In fact, the town manager contends that this vibrantly-pigmented hydrant, which is located near the grounds of Elon Community Church, is just one product of a municipal campaign that’s intended to get residents involved in the beautification of Elon’s downtown development district.

“A year or so ago, we started a program that allows residents and citizen groups to repaint fire hydrants, and this happens to be one of them,” he explained in an interview. “As far as I’m aware, that’s just a picture of a beautiful day that somebody painted.”

The trunk of the fire hydrant in question is actually painted blue and white in a design that seems to evoke a puffy cloud crossing the sky. The top of the hydrant is nevertheless graced by multi-hued bands that are, indeed, reminiscent of a rainbow.

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Roedner added that the actual application to repaint this hydrant more or less confirms his first-blush impression about its lack of a social or political subtext. He explained that the original proposal for the design came from a parishioner of Elon Community Church, whose pastor Randy Orwig also serves as a member of Elon’s town council. He added that the applicant had planned to dress up the top of the hydrant to look like an acorn with four oak leaves to represent each of the seasons – while bedecking the trunk with a blue sky, clouds, and a rainbow.

“She changed her design, I think, while painting it,” Roedner added, “as it was very hard for this elderly woman to be working sitting on the ground.”

In addition to the hydrant at the corner of College and Williamson, the town manager said that another in front of Elon’s town hall has been repainted to resemble a skyline, while other proposals for hydrant art are still in the works.

Roedner went on to note that none of these eye-catching designs have raised any concerns for the town’s fire chief Landon Massey. In particular, he stressed that Massey has found nothing about the multi-colored top on the hydrant at College and Williamson that would interfere with its function in an emergency.

“I know that in Elon,” he added, “it is not the cap of the hydrant but the color of the collar that we use for identification.”

According to Jason M. Tyson, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Insurance, both the National Fire Protection Association and the American Water Works Association recommend that the tops, or “bonnets,” of fire hydrants should be color-coded to indicate their internal water pressure. Under each organization’s guidelines, a red bonnet is assumed to correspond to the lowest level of pressure – followed, in ascending order, by orange, green, and light blue. Even so, Tyson observed that localities in North Carolina aren’t necessarily beholden to using this standardized color scheme.

“Most communities either follow NFPA or AWWA as their color-coding standard,” he went on to acknowledge. “However, some communities choose to adopt ordinances for the color coding based on their preference and the aesthetics of their town or county.”

Yet, the hydrant’s new paintjob seems to have sparked a much more incendiary response from an elderly Gibsonville resident who dropped in on Elon’s fire department earlier this month. This visitor’s outrage was apparently alarming enough that Massey dashed off an email later that day to inform Roedner and other municipal officials about the encounter.

“[He] was quite angry that we would allow someone to paint a rainbow on a hydrant,” the fire chief went on to recount in his missive on June 9. “In his rage, he threatened to run it over, and [he] made the comment that he did not care if the whole town burned to the ground, He also threatened to paint a Confederate flag on one [of the hydrants]. He then proceeded to lecture us on how horrible the world is now and how bad the town of Elon had become.”

Massey assured the town manager and his colleagues that he doesn’t expect this “elderly gentleman” to wreak any actual havoc over the hydrant, although he added that he wanted to make them aware of his remarks “in case he was serious about his threats.”

Meanwhile, Roedner acknowledged that this man’s outburst over the hydrant also prompted him to take precautionary measures during the next regularly-scheduled meeting of Elon’s town council.

Among the items on that meeting’s agenda was a mayoral proclamation that designated June as LGBTQ “Pride Month” in Elon. Although the town manager conceded that he knew of no actionable threats about this proclamation, he nevertheless asked Elon’s police chief Kelly Blackwelder to be at the meeting in case there was trouble from an audience member.

In the end, Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe didn’t bother to read out this proclamation or another in honor of the Juneteenth holiday when they came up on the council’s meeting agenda. Sharpe merely asked the clerk to enter both documents into the meeting’s minutes – as has been her wont whenever the people who request mayoral proclamations aren’t on hand to accept them.

Even so, the Pride Month proclamation did draw some strong, but nonviolent, objections from audience member Jim Bradshaw.

A resident of Elon’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, Bradshaw was one of many people who attended the council’s last meeting to speak out against a proposed residential development on the town’s northern periphery. But before he shared his misgivings about this subdivision, Bradshaw took advantage of a designated public comment period to weigh in on Elon’s homage to Pride Month.

“God loves the person, but hates the sin,” he declared before the mayor instructed Elon’s town clerk to enter the proclamation into the record.

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