Plantation suit is War on Christmas and more

HOA president says Plantation has spent over $60k fighting Christmas display

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Michael Mayo   

Published June 12, 2015


You can't fight City Hall, the saying goes, but can City Hall fight you? Apparently so, as evidenced by Plantation's ongoing lawsuit against residents Mark and Kathy Hyatt and their self-dubbed "Extreme Christmas" display.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Hyatts' annual holiday display is either a wondrous spectacle designed to delight children of all ages, or an outlandish, over-the-top nuisance and a threat to public safety.

'Tis the season … to get ticked off over holiday displays. Whether it's gaudy, over-the-top lights-and-music shows at private homes that have neighbors bemoaning crowds, noise and traffic, or irreverent Festivus poles in the public square, it seems there's something to irk everyone in this supposed... ( Michael Mayo )

The city falls into the "hates it" category. Especially since the Hyatts balked at paying costs for police to handle crowds and traffic near their small cul-de-sac in the Plantation Acres neighborhood. So the city launched a War on the Hyatts' Extreme Christmas that seems wasteful, misguided and chilling.

In February 2014, the city filed a "nuisance abatement" lawsuit against the Hyatts to halt the display, which attracts spectators from across South Florida.

As of April, the city has spent $60,648 on the case, according to public records, and we haven't even gotten to depositions or a trial yet. In addition, the city dramatically hiked its overtime spending on police near the display last year, from $5,194 in 2013 to $31,310 in 2014, according to public records.

I don't know how much the Hyatts have rung up in legal fees; I left messages for them and their lawyer, but didn't hear back. The Hyatts have made an offer to scale back the display to settle the suit, but the city has rejected it.

It's common for citizens to sue government or other citizens, but it's a little odd and disturbing when cities sue their own taxpayers. Especially since cities have the power to make laws, enforce regulations and impose fines.

Here's the truly galling part: In its lawsuit, the city takes issue with the "size and nature" of the Hyatt display, but the city has no laws regulating holiday displays.

Before filing suit, shouldn't the city council first put some rules in place? I asked Mayor Diane Bendekovic why the city hasn't attempted to spell out what's "acceptable" or "compatible" through ordinances, or how somebody is supposed to conform to regulations if there are no regulations. She declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

By going the lawsuit route, Plantation has turned a War on Christmas into much more. This is an attack on freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.

Gene Marchese, president of the Plantation Acres Homeowners Association, calls the city's response "overzealous."

He said members in the 1,200-home association are split 50-50 on the issue, but he's sympathetic to the Hyatts because "the city is targeting them and treating them unfairly." Earlier this year, a Plantation special magistrate imposed a $7,000 fine on the Hyatts for a building code violation, not having a permit for a shed.

Marchese said the "shed" was not a permanent structure, but part of the holiday display; a Santa's Workshop made from PVC pipe that is disassembled each year and not anchored to the ground. The Hyatts were fined $250 a day for 28 days.

"It's not a building, it's a decoration," Marchese said. "To me, it just seems like harassment by the city."
In its lawsuit, the city calls the display "carnival-like," frets about impact on neighbors, harps about having to spend money on police (imagine that!) and bemoans the overall atmosphere, which has the "character of a holiday theme park." Bah humbug!

Look, I feel for the neighbors. But if they're claiming harm or damage, shouldn't they be the ones suing?

It's a pity all sides can't work out a compromise, which is what Boca Raton did with resident Rick Newman and his annual over-the-top display. Newman scaled back live dance performances and the arrival of Santa Claus in a vintage fire truck.

Marchese said he offered to broker a solution, but has been spurned by the city. He just sees this legal fight as a big waste of taxpayer money.

"The attorneys, they all drive Mercedes," Marchese said. "They're the only ones who win."